The Scoop on College Application Letters of Recommendation

Applying for a health professional program is no easy task. It means filling out multiple applications (unless your programs of interest use a CAS), collecting transcripts and finalizing your resume. Another key part of the application process? The reference letters. References, also sometimes called letters of recommendation, are one of the few parts of the application process that a student does not have direct control over. It can be difficult to choose who to write a letter and stressful to rely on someone else to meet your program deadlines and criteria, but if you plan ahead everything will work out just fine.

When should I request a reference?

Give your reference at least a couple weeks in advance before you need it finished. Writing a letter of recommendation does not take five minutes. If it does, you may have chosen the wrong person to write it! A couple weeks gives your recommenders time to collect their thoughts, review your resume and write a thoughtful letter.

You will also want to respect your reference’s schedule. Most likely they are working a full-time job and cannot get to completing the letter within the day. And mostly likely, you are not the only person who has requested a letter. Depending on a reference, they may assign themselves a limit to how many they will write in a given semester. Make sure that you do not wait until last minute and give them plenty of time to write.

How should I request a reference?

The best plan of action is to get an affirmation from the recommender in person and then electronically. Ideally, the person writing your letter works on your campus or at your current job. If that is the case, request the letter in person. If they agree to do it, send them a followup email with 24 hours letting them know specifics, like the due date and the name of your program of interest.

If the person you are requesting to write is a professor, it is best to do it during their office hours. That way they can talk privately with you as to what is needed. They also have chance to think about it, instead of worrying about starting their lecture or running to their next appointment.

If your reference is not available to be seen in person, send them an email with the plain facts details about what you are requesting. If they do not respond within three business days, you can assume that they may not have time to work on the letter.

How many letters should I request?

Individual programs have unique requirements regarding reference letters. If it is not clear from reading their application instructions, it is suggested to contact the program for more information.

Most students seek out sites like Reddit or search Google for the answers, rather than call a school. Ultimately, however, the admissions director from your potential program will have the actual answers.

What do I need to request from a reference?

Always check if your application or supplemental application has requirements or deadlines. Many programs require the reference letter to be on letterhead and to have a signature. They may deem it unofficial if it does not meet those requirements.

You will want to make sure you — and your letter writer — are aware of the requirements that the letter must meet. If there is no mention, you may want to advise your reference to make the letter at least two paragraphs long. They will want to state how they know you, their experiences with you and their testament to your professional abilities.

How long should I know a reference before requesting they write a letter for me?

You want to make sure that when a program director reaches out to your reference, they can recall who you are and that their input will be valuable. The last thing you want is for the letter to be seen as useless because the person who wrote it sees you as unmemorable.

A good way to gauge this is to go back and think of your academic relationship with the professor. If you did not speak up in class, attend office hours or talk to the professor outside of class time, then it’s a sign you should not request a letter from them.

What does it mean to waive my right?

Applications may require that you waive your right to the letter of reference. This means that you will have no access to the letter of recommendation. Programs who prefer your right to be waived want to see an unfiltered opinion of your skills. Many programs do require this, so be sure to choose a reference you can trust.

Are letters really necessary for my application?

According to data supplied by Liaison, the leading provider of admissions services for over two decades, over 60% of their Centralized Application Services (CAS™) have require at least one recommendation letter for an application to be considered complete. This means that in order to have a complete application, these letters must be submitted by the reference and posted to the application. Generally, all programs look for reference letters, but you may want to check with your application service if there is a mandatory number of letters needed in order for your application to be reviewed.

I got my letter — Am I done now?

Almost! Write a thank you note to your writers and let them know about the status of your application. If they took the time to write you a letter, chances are they have an interest in your academic future. Even if you have to deliver bad news, they will appreciate you letting them know and will most likely offer to write you another reference.

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