Selecting & Requesting Letters Of Recommendations for Application to Health Professions Schools

Because letters of recommendation (LORs) are key components of your application, be sure to devote sufficient time to carefully considering what collection of letter writers would best be  able to address the breadth of your skills and character traits. Download the AAMC Anatomy of an Applicant Self-Assessment Guide to reflect on the core competencies valued in health professionals and evaluate which of your competencies each potential letter writer would be  able to effectively address.

How to build relationships with faculty and other mentors:

Faculty members who know you well through class work or advising are best able to provide meaningful and strong letters of recommendation. Try to choose professors whom you have had for seminar courses or in upper-level courses, and ones whom you have gotten to know through participation in departmental activities and projects (i.e. research, Honors Society work), and/or through meaningful consultations during office hours.

How to choose a letter writer:

Before choosing potential letter writers, inform yourself as to what Admissions Committees for your field of pursuit are looking for in letters of recommendation (LORs). For example, if medical school is your goal, read the AAMC’s Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation. If you have difficulty envisioning at least three strong letter writers who can offer specific and personalized endorsement of your candidacy, evaluate whether this is the ideal cycle for your application.

Medical, dental, and other health professions schools vary with regard to their preferences and requirements regarding authorship of the LORs. Consult individual schools’ websites prior to applying to determine the specific letter requirements for each, focusing on schools to which you are likely to apply based on your goals and your metrics. Do not apply to schools for whom you can’t meet their letter eligibility requirements. 

In general, having letters from the following will allow for eligibility at most schools:

  1. Professors who can comment on your ability in the sciences —i.e., someone who has directly taught you in a science class (ideally not in a large introductory class) at UVM. For medical/dental school applicants, at least two such science-based letters are often required. At some schools that require two science professors, it will be acceptable for the other to be from a science professor who closely supervised you in research or in your role as a teaching assistant for their class. If you have taken undergraduate-level or graduate-level science courses after graduating from UVM, it would be prudent to have a letter from one of those professors.
  2. One or two additional letters, ideally from the following two categories:
  • Humanities or social science faculty (and note that if you are a non-science major, it would be important to have a letter from a professor who taught you in one or more upper-level courses in your major)
  • Supervisor or advisor who knows you very well from a time-intensive relationship (coach, job supervisor, club advisor)

Avoid asking for letters from:

Friends, family members, your family physician, or clergy, or from physicians with whom the extent of  your interactions have been a limited number of shadowing hours. These kinds of letters are generally  not considered helpful, as they are often highly subjective.

Additional considerations:

Dental applicants: Many dental schools require a letter from a dental professional.

Osteopathic medical school applicants: Some DO schools require a letter from a physician and may specify that it must be a physician with a DO degree.

Physician assistant applicants: Most PA schools will request a letter from a health care professional.

What if I’m only in large classes?

A predicament facing some students, particularly juniors who hope to go directly from college to health professions school, is not having developed meaningful relationships with any science professors because all of the courses taken to date have been in large lecture classes. If this describes you, consider delaying application until you have been able to dive further into upper-level science classes. If you feel that a professor from a large lecture class does know you well enough, then reach out and ask them directly, “Do you feel you could support my candidacy for medical/dental school in a formal letter of recommendation?” Talk with them about your motivation for professional school, review your work in their class, and offer to share your personal statement and/or resume. Perhaps you've come to know the graduate teaching assistant in your lab section quite well, and they could write a collaborative letter jointly signed by your professor. While not ideal, you may need to consider this option. The letter would require some text from the professor as well as their validation of the graduate TA’s credibility

What makes an effective letter?

Effective letters to health professions schools indicate:

  • the context in which the evaluator has gotten to know you
  • the duration of their acquaintance with you
  • if possible, an assessment of you as a future health professional based on their direct observation of your core competencies in action. 
  • how your performance, motivation, etc. compares with other students whom they have taught.

How should I request a letter and follow up with the letter writer?

Ideally, set up an appointment to ask a professor if they are able and comfortable providing a recommendation letter rather than by making your request in an email. Keep in mind that they are busy professionals who will be taking time out of their schedules to create an effective letter. 

  • Make contact well in advance of the deadline for receipt of the letter by the school or centralized application service. 
  • Provide them with guidance like the AAMC Guidelines for Letter Writers. 
  • Thank them when you send them the form and other materials that will help them
  • Thank them again once the letter has been submitted
  • Finally remember to share your good news when you’ve been accepted

What if I wait to apply to health professions school until > 1 year after UVM graduation?

If, for example, you have a definitive plan to take two or more growth years between the end of college and the beginning of your graduate program, it may be a good idea to ask your chosen letter writer(s) from UVM if they are willing to write the letter in advance and submit it to a confidential letter holding service like Interfolio. When the time comes to apply, the recommendation letter can be sent via Interfolio to the centralized application service. Interfolio charges an annual fee for holding the letters and any other materials that you store in your personalized “dossier.” 

An alternative to this, if the professor agrees, is to keep in close touch after graduation, providing regular updates regarding your activities and plans, and then have the professor write a letter at the time of your application. The advantage of this is that the letter will be dated the same year as your application. The disadvantage is that the letter writer may be harder to contact (e.g., left UVM for another university or due to retirement), may recall fewer specific details, or may be too busy to agree.