What are letters of recommendation?
Letters of recommendation are letters you request from professionals who know you well and who you feel can confidently recommend you for application to a particular school or program. (More information about who these professionals might be is given in the next section.)
Letters of recommendation are required for students applying to most, but not all, health profession programs. These letters are also sometimes called letters of evaluation. It is important to check with any school to which you intend to apply and find out their specific requirements regarding letters of recommendation.
Who should write letters of recommendation?
You should check, very early in the process, with each school you will be applying to and find out if they have specific requirements. In general, health professional programs will want to see letters from people such as: science faculty members, job or volunteer supervisors, research supervisors, etc.
It is important to assure that your letter writer knows you well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation. Having said that, you do not want letters of recommendation from family members. Additionally, you do not want letters from family friends – unless there is some specific circumstance where you spent time working for that individual, or had some type of a relevant professional relationship that they can comment on.
Some professional schools will state that they want a letter of recommendation from a "Pre-Health (or Pre-Med) Committee". These schools will also accept individual letters if your school does not have a "committee".
Please note that the University of Minnesota does not have this type of committee. You will need to request individual letters if you did your undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota.
How and when to ask for a letter of recommendation
Do not begin a relationship with someone by asking for a letter of recommendation. To get a good letter, you need to build a relationship with someone prior to the request. For faculty, it might mean that you spend some time with them after class, or at office hours. Some students find opportunities to get involved in projects with faculty as a way to build these relationships.
Letter writers might also be individuals you have worked with, who can write about your work ethic and character qualities. Some schools want letters from people with whom you have volunteered or shadowed – someone from within the profession you are entering. Regardless, all letters should be written by people who know you well enough to write a strong letter, because critical letter, or even a weak letter, could destroy your efforts to be successful.
Ask far enough in advance that someone has time to write a letter, but not so far that the relationship becomes irrelevant. We recommend at least one month in advance of when you want the letter completed (note: this does not mean the date it is due to the school – give yourself, and your letter writer, a cushion). Pay attention to timing – especially with faculty. The end of the semester is a busy time for faculty, so consider requesting your letter more towards the middle of the semester.
What to provide to your letter writers
Regardless of how well you know your letter writers, provide them with the following:
- Updated resume that includes jobs, volunteer positions, presentations, publications, etc.
- Transcript or at least a list of classes you have taken
- Your personal statement, or other application materials that will help the letter writer
- If the person is a faculty member, an example from the class (possibly a paper or test)
- The list of schools you are applying to – and the names (or group) to whom the letters should be addressed if different from "To: the Admissions Committee"
- A clear understanding (written or verbal) of why you want to go into your chosen field
- Include any and all instructions for where and how to submit the letters - and a deadline! Provide a deadline that is in advance of the real deadline!
- Send a thank you to your letter writer after they have completed the letter. This is an important point of closure!
Waiving your rights to read the letter
It is always a good idea to waive your rights to read the letter, and in some cases it is essential. By waiving your rights you send the message to the letter writer that they can be open and honest in their appraisal of your qualifications.
Writing your own letter of recommendation
Never write the letter of recommendation for someone to sign – even if your letter writers ask you to or say it’s OK. This is both unethical and foolish. Most admissions committees can tell by the tone of a letter whether it was written by a student or not. If an admissions committee questions the authenticity of a letter, they can always contact the letter writer for verification.