Letters of recommendation (LOR) are essential components of one’s application to medical, dental, pharmacy, physical therapy and other professional programs. These letters signify that the writer is vouching for the applicant’s personal, academic and professional qualities and potential to succeed in the given profession.
Who to Ask for a LOR
Professional programs typically require that you acquire around 3 letters from professors, clinicians and/or employers who know you well enough to recommend you based on their past experiences with you as a student, volunteer and/or employee. While different centralized application services will allow you to submit letters of recommendation from a variety of writers, you should always check the requirements of the individual programs to see what specific letters that you need to be eligible for admission at every school. For example, if you are applying to ten schools and nine state that you should submit:
Three letters of recommendation, including
1. One from a professor
2. One from a clinician
3. One from a professor or clinician
But the 10th school states that you should submit:
Three letters of recommendation, including
One from a professor
One from a clinician
One from an employer
Then you should submit FOUR letters total in order to be eligible for admission at each program. Checking the requirements for every program is crucial.
Tips on Asking for a LOR
Asking for the actual letter may seem like an intimidating task, especially if you don’t feel very close to any professors in particular. If you attended a large university with typical class sizes ranging from 100-200 students, it can seem fairly difficult to make any significant impression on professors. However, if you ask in a timely, direct and professional way, then this won’t be as difficult as you think. Here are some tips from our HGA team to make this process easier:
Ask them for a letter of recommendation within 6 months of the time that you worked with them, but the sooner the better. This is because they undoubtedly work with countless other students, so to maximize the chances that the letter will be personal, you should ask them for it while you are still fresh in their minds.
Make the initial contact in person. For employers or advisors, you might see them on a daily basis, so asking in person might not be very hard to do. However, scheduling to meet face-to-face with academic professors, might require more of an effort. Therefore, making initial contact in person is crucial since professors see hundreds of e-mails and students on a daily basis.
Prepare a small folder (doesn’t have to be a fancy one) at your initial request. In it, you should include
Short cover letter, including information on what class you took with them and when
Personal statement draft
Copy of your transcripts
Keep in consistent communication with your recommenders, reminding them of deadlines. Speaking of which, consider setting your deadline for them to submit the letter of recommendation about 1 month prior to your actual deadline. This gives them some leeway.
Don't ask them if they will write you just "a letter of reference," but instead ask if they will write you a strong letter of reference. This may feel awkward to ask directly, but keep in mind that you’ll be risking your application if you do not have their assurance. Also, don’t take it personally if they say “no.”
If a professor offers to write you a letter more than six months before you plan to apply, you have several options to handle this. First and foremost, you should ask the professor what he or she is the most comfortable doing. One, you can ask the professor to write the letter now and update the letter as your application draws closer. This is the same strategy if you are reapplying with old letters, i.e. if your letters are too old or significant changes in your applications have occurred, then you will need to reach out to your letter writers anyway to get an updated letter. Two, you can thank the professor for the offer, reach out to the professor on a regular basis, e.g. once a term, just to remind the professor who you are, then ask the professor to write the letter as your application approaches. When you contact your professors from time to time to remind them who you are, make this interaction as genuine as you can rather just for the sake of interacting with them, e.g. send them a recently published article related to their research that you have personally discussed with the professor in the class or office hours.
Ask for your LOR’s early--before the rush of springtime application preparations when everyone else will be asking the same professor to write them one. Also, have backup letters in case some of your LOR’s aren’t done in time for your application.