By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted April 19th, 2011.
This blog addresses recommendation letters, both for students preparing their applications for veterinary college, and for current veterinary students applying for jobs and internships.
Selecting the right people to write your reference letters is the most important decision. The people you ask to write letters should:
- Know you and your work. Avoid having a well-known person (eg. legislator, dean) write your letter unless they know you and your accomplishments well.
- Be well-known in the professional community. A good rule of thumb is to ask the most prominent and respected people who also know you well.
- Not be too familiar personally. You should usually avoid letters from family members, neighbors and clergy unless specifically requested.
- Be responsive, reliable, and prompt in writing the reference letter.
- Provide an articulate and concisely-written reference, avoiding hyperbole or exaggeration.
- Make your letter unique to you, your circumstances, and the college or position for which you are applying. I acknowledge that the electronic veterinary college application service (VMCAS) makes it difficult to specify individual colleges.
The reference letter should contain at least five parts, usually in the following order:
- Description of how long the reviewer has known you, and under what circumstances.
- If a working situation, the letter should describe your employment responsibilities, and how the work has progressed as you have gained experience and competence.
- Description of your attributes, including both technical and personal qualities in specific terms to your situation. Letters with platitudes and non-specific descriptions are unhelpful in distinguishing you from other candidates.
- Narrative of your technical competence, personal and professional qualities, creativity, intellectual stimulation, and progress in your work or studies.
- Comparison of your suitability for the position with other candidates previously evaluated.
You should determine ahead of time if your evaluator has concerns about recommending you. At an early stage in the process, meet with your prospective evaluator, describing the reason you are requesting a reference, and asking them if they feel comfortable providing a highly supportive letter. Because some reviewers may have a hard time acknowledging their concerns to you directly, you should frame your question in a manner that allows them to express lack of enthusiasm or other possible clues to their lack of full support.
After you decide to request a letter, provide him/her with your resume and a series of bullet points outlining those experiences and attributes that you feel might be helpful for your application. Remember that most reviewers will be writing letters for several applicants and any help you provide will likely be appreciated.
Except in the most unusual circumstances, waive your right to see the letter. Failure to waive your right of confidentiality may mean that the letter will not be taken seriously. It may not even be read!
Consider it your responsibility to ensure that the letter is actually written and gets to the evaluator on schedule.
If you are disappointed that you do not get the position you seek, feel free to follow up with both your evaluator and the institution/employer. To inquire specifically about the contents of a letter is unprofessional and may even imply a breach of ethical judgment. You can, however, ask both parties if there is anything you could do regarding your evaluations to improve your chances in a subsequent year.
Dr. Smith invites comments at firstname.lastname@example.org