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So… you want a letter of recommendation…

The Ins and Outs of Requesting a Letter of Reference
by Communications Committee

You're thinking about medical or dental school or perhaps graduate school and you notice that most of them require one or more “letters of reference” to go with your application. Generally, the application instructions will indicate whether the letters should come from an instructor, a professor or a supervisor of your work. What should you do? The first thing you need to do is decide who to ask.  This should be a person who knows you fairly well (no, don’t ask your mom) and yet is an authority figure, for example the professor in charge of the lab you worked in rather than a technician or post doc. Once you’ve identified who you want to write a letter, ask them, preferably in person. This is why having some prior contact and interaction with the individual will help immensely in soliciting their help and giving them more detailed information to add in their letter. You should also provide the referee a release that allows them to discuss your performance in school. The form is found on the Biology website: click on the undergraduate menu on the left side or click on this link:

Many students use electronic application services such as PharmCAS or AMCAS.  These provide websites for the transfer of electronic letters of reference and make the process fairly easy, especially if you plan to apply to multiple schools or programs. If you are applying directly to a program or for a particular job be sure to provide the snail-mail address or email of the person that should get the letter. Letters need to be sent either by the services such as AMCAS or directly from the referee to the admissions committee. Generally, letters forwarded from the applicant are not very useful; if you are concerned whether a letter has been sent, it is perfectly acceptable to email the referee to inquire, especially if there is an application deadline. Most letter writers understand the deadline dilemma.

That brings up when you should solicit letters. It never hurts to ask well in advance if an individual would be amenable to supporting your application with a letter. Usually the program application instructions will indicate the deadline and that needs to be passed along to your referees. Do not expect a very helpful letter if you ask to have  it sent tomorrow! Give the referee some time measured in weeks rather than hours to write your letter. A general rule would be to give the letter writer at least a month before the deadline to submit the letter. It helps enormously if you provide them with your resume or curriculum vitae, outlining not only your schoolwork but also jobs, hobbies, sports and other activities such as volunteering. Remember that crusty old prof had to ask for lots of letters of reference to get where they are now. Good luck with your applications and with attaining your future goals.

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