"To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease."  —Andrew T. Still, MD, DO

"As a family physician, my job is listening to people's stories."
—Jon S. Hallberg, MD

Letters of Reference

From the beginning of your first year in college, you should get to know professors, advisors, health professionals, employers or others, and give them the opportunity to get to know who well enough that they would be willing to write you a strong letter supporting your application to a health profession school.

Letters of reference are extremely important because they help you to become less of a statistic to an admissions committee. Various admissions offices refer to letter of reference by a variety of terms such as evaluation form.

Who To Approach for a Letter

Many medical and dental schools have indicated they like a balance of 2 science letters, 1 non-science academic letter, and 1 letter from a non-academic source. Because admission committees have so many applications to read, most schools have a maximum of 4-5 letters they will accept.

In gathering your faculty letters, the most important factor is that your evaluator knows you well and is not just going to submit a standard letter for all his/her A or B students. It is important that you ask people who can be descriptive and write from a personal and specific background, rather than someone who can just provide a class rank and grade received type of letter. This is why it is important to develop a relationship with faculty members and other selected authors early in your college career.

With the possible exception of research advisors, any non-academic letters should be from people who have known you and seen your work for some considerable period of time, probably a year or more. A letter from a person who just saw you volunteer for one quarter or whom you just observed once a week for a summer are often unable to address the issues the professional schools want to hear about. It may look like you just did volunteer work or observation to get a letter. Students often ask if it is good to include a letter from a coach or family friend. If the letter addresses leadership skills, reliability and ability to get along with others it is fine. Letters that merely attest to being a good athlete or being "a nice guy" do not usually carry much weight with admissions committees.

How to ask for a letter of reference:

Always contact the chosen evaluators before you give them the evaluation form and ask if they feel they know you well enough to write a strong evaluation. You should feel comfortable enough to ask a potential evaluator the following questions:

  1. Will you write me a letter of reference?
  2. If yes, will you be able to support my application by writing a strong letter on my behalf?
  3. Do you feel that you can go beyond my grades to describe me by commenting on my academic abilities, problem-solving skills, integrity and leadership skills?
  4. What do you believe are the strengths and weaknesses of my application?
  5. Do you have any advice as to how I can strengthen my application?

When it is time to ask for the formal letter of reference, you should prepare information to give to the author of the letter. This should include:

  • Resume
  • Personal statement regarding your interest in your chosen health profession
  • Unofficial transcripts
  • Information on the courses you took if the evaluator is an academic instructor, including your grade and any special projects you completed
  • Special evaluation forms, (e.g. Letter of Collection Reference Forms or Letter of Reference Matching Forms required by some centralized application services) may be required

Always provide the evaluator with at least 1 month to write your letter. Send a hand written thank-you to your evaluators after you have asked for a letter to be written. Be sure to share with them the good news when you have been accepted to a health professions school!

Privacy Waiver/Buckley Amendment

Letters of reference forms usually include a section where an applicant is given the opportunity to waive or not waive the right to read the letter. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 provides students the right to access their educational records. This includes letters of reference. Because many schools prefer confidential letters, students are given a choice to waive or not waive their right to see a letter of reference.

Choosing whether or not to waive your rights is a personal decision you must make on your own. It's important for you to be aware that you make the choice regarding waiving your rights and that it is a voluntary decision. A range of sources reviewed regarding this issue appears to favor that you waive the right, the assumption being that the letter may be more candid, and that you had confidence in your selection of your evaluators. A good discussion regarding waiving your rights or choosing to retain your rights, can be found in the Premedical or Predental Planning Guides by Jane Diehl Crawford.

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