When you apply to professional school, you will need to submit a specific requirement of letters of recommendation. Each school sets its own assortment requirements for letters of recommendation, so we recommend creating a spreadsheet to track the assortment requirements at each of your schools of interest.
Your letters should be written by non-relatives who are well acquainted with you from academic or professional settings (school, work, health-related activities, laboratory performance, volunteer work, etc.). You should select people who know you well enough that they can share several anecdotes that demonstrate personal strengths in action. (Conversely, if your letter writer can only comment on your grade or that you attended class, they will write a letter that not only is of no use but actually could be detrimental.)
Most schools require a specific assortment of three to five letters of recommendation; do not exceed their limits. When selecting the three to five people from whom you would like to receive letters, consider selecting individuals who know you in different ways so that the packet of letters will portray a variety of your strengths. In general, a strong assortment of letters typically includes the following three to four letters:
- A faculty member who taught you in a science (biology, chemistry, neuroscience, or physics course) who got to know you well enough to comment upon your intellectual engagement as a student
- An additional faculty member from any course (science or non-science) who also got to know you well enough to comment upon your intellectual engagement
- A research supervisor or other work/volunteer/clinical supervisor who knows you well and can provide specific examples of the personal strengths you exhibited in that activity
- [Usually optional] An additional faculty member or supervisor who knows you well. You could also consider a coach or spiritual advisor.
Important notes about your assortment of letters:
We regret that we are unable to offer Pre-Health Advisor Letters of Recommendation, except for the pre-med, pre-dent, pre-optometry, and pre-vet students enrolled in our formal Post-Baccalaureate Health Professions Program who complete our Pre-Health Advisor/Committee Letter Process. (The other types of programs typically do not place high value on a Pre-Health Advisor Letter.)
Some programs require a letter from a clinical supervisor, but most do not. If you are not required to submit a letter written by a clinical supervisor, it is only strategic to ask for this type of letter if you have worked directly with that supervisor, such that the person can share first-hand anecdotes that demonstrate your understanding of the profession and your personal approach to working with patients and staff in a clinical setting.
- If you have graduated and are currently working, you should obtain a letter from your employer.
If you are preparing to apply to medical (MD and/or DO) or dental school, you will have two options for managing letters of recommendation:
- Your letter writers can upload their letters directly to the application service. This approach is straightforward, but comes with two potential drawbacks: First, your letter writers cannot submit their letters in advance. They must wait until the common application opens for your application year. Second, if you end up having to reapply, you would need to contact your letter writers again to ask them to upload their letters again.
- You can open an account with a third-party letter storage service, such as Interfolio or PrivateFolio. (Note: CU Boulder students will receive a $20 credit for a PrivateFolio account if you sign up using the link provided here using your colorado.edu email address.)
If you use a letter storage service, your letter writer will upload your letter to the storage service, where it can be stored for as long as you want. When you are ready to apply to professional school, you will direct the letter storage service to forward specific letters to your application file. With this approach, your letter writers will be able to complete and submit your letters well in advance of your application season while maintaining the confidentiality of the letter. You will be able to rest easy knowing that your letters are ready-and-waiting. Also, if you end up having to reapply, you can have the same letter re-uploaded in a future year, if desired.
If you are preparing to apply to professional school for any of the other health care professions, your letter writers will be required to upload their letters directly to the server maintained by your common application service. When they do so, your recommenders will need to answer a few additional questions that a third-party vendor would not be able to answer.
Although not all of your letters must be written by faculty, most schools require applicants to have at least two of their letters written by college faculty members who have taught you in the classroom. Therefore, you must get to know some of your faculty members! You can make these essential contacts by making use of office hours, by seeking out courses with small class sizes (honors courses and critical thinking courses are good bets), by doing research in a lab, or by taking an active role in a club or activity that has a faculty advisor.
The strongest letters are those written by writers who know you well and can attest to your relevant personal traits by sharing first-hand anecdotes of times when they have seen you demonstrate those traits. “Prestige” of the writer is far less important than the ability of your writers to share rich, illustrative, first-hand anecdotes.
- Most health programs prefer not to have letters from Graduate Teaching Assistants. If you know a T.A. well, and you feel that the T.A. could write a professional evaluation, a good approach is to ask the professor of the course if he/she would be willing to write a joint letter with the T.A. If possible, it should be signed by both the professor and the T.A.
- Most professional schools explicitly state that they will not accept letters from family members or friends of the family. Your goal is to get a set of letters from people who can evaluate you from a professional perspective.
You should ask people to write a letter for you when they know you as well as they are going to know you by application time. In other words, if you want to ask for a letter from a professor from whom you are going to take another course before you apply, or from a research supervisor with whom you will be doing an independent project before you submit a professional school application, do not ask for the letter to be written prior to completing those activities. You can, however, ask a potential letter author if s/he would consider writing a letter for you in the future.
That said, if you know you would like to receive a letter from someone with whom you interacted in the past, you should ask for your letter sooner rather than later. You may choose to sign up for a letter management service such as Interfolio or PrivateFolio so that your letter writer can write and submit your letter in advance of the timing of your application to professional school. CU Boulder has negotiated a reduced cost for our students to use the PrivateFolio service; read more here.
You may ask in person or over email. When you reach out to that person, we suggest that you ask the following three questions:
- "Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?"
- "Do you feel it can be a strong, supportive letter?"
- "May I make an appointment to talk with you and review my preparation?"
If the answer to all these questions is not an enthusiastic "yes," you may indicate that you want to do further thinking before proceeding, or you may simply say, "Okay, I appreciate your honesty. I'll try to find another recommender."
Documents to bring:
- Your resume
- If your GPA is strong, bring copies of your college transcripts
- A rough draft of your personal statement for your application to professional school. (If you haven't prepared it yet, bring a one-page explanation of the experiences that led you to become interested in your career of choice, and how your most meaningful experiences have informed your motivations, values, and goals.)
- If available, a copy of an especially good paper, exam, or project you did under the person’s supervision.
- Our Guidelines for Writing Compelling Letters of Recommendation document, which provides guidance to your letter writers on the best approaches to take when writing a letter in support of an applicant to professional school in the health care fields.
- Using the list of suggested topics on the back side of that document, highlight two to four topic areas that you feel this person is best-suited to address. Ask, "I was hoping you could tell stories about times when you saw me expressing these particular traits. Do you feel you can do that?” (Note: The decision rests with the writer.)
- Be sure to point out the fact that admissions committees are most interested in reading their comments about their direct interactions with you, not a rehash of your motivations to enter this career field or a description of your other activities, since you will cover those topics yourself in your application.
Ask each letter writer how long s/he thinks s/he needs to complete the letter. Two to three weeks is typical.
Be sure to negotiate a due date that is earlier than when you really need it, as it is common for letter authors to take longer than expected to complete a letter. (Ideally, negotiate a due date that is at least a month in advance of when it should be submitted.) By establishing an agreed-upon date in advance, you can feel comfortable sending a polite reminder email to the letter writer if/when the due date passes with no letter yet submitted.
Your common application will prompt you to enter the names and contact information for your letter writers, but you can wait until after you have submitted your application to fill out this section. In other words, you do not need to have any of your letters submitted to the application service in order for you to do your part in submitting the application; moreover, you can submit your application before you've even entered the names and contact information for your letter authors. Aim to have your letters submitted by time when you have completed your secondary applications.
Under the provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), you are guaranteed the right of access to the contents of any evaluation letter you request from a recommender, unless you specifically waive that right. That said, the vast majority of letters written for professional school applicants are written confidentially (that is, the applicant agreed to waive his/her right to read the letter). Admissions committees assume that confidential evaluations will be more candid, and thus assign more weight to those that were written confidentially. However, you should consider the pros and cons of keeping and waiving your right to read your letters of recommendation and make the decision that makes you feel most comfortable. Whatever your decision, you should apply that decision to ALL of your letters – you should either keep your right to read ALL of your letters or waive your right to read ALL of the letters.
Factors to Consider in Deciding to Retain Access
- You will know the information schools have and therefore can prepare for interviews accordingly.
- It may relieve stress and anxiety to know exactly what has been said.
- Factual mistakes in the letter can be corrected, if the writer chooses to make those corrections.
- If you conclude that the letter is unfavorable, you can choose not to have it sent out.
- By reading a subjective evaluation, you have a chance to benefit from criticism.
- Be aware that a potential recommender may choose not to write a letter for you if you retain access to the letter.
- If you retain access, you need to be prepared to explain your reasons for your choice during interview(s).
- If you retain access, a member of an admissions committee at a health professional school receiving the letter might tentatively draw one or more of the following conclusions:
- The evaluation may be less candid because the writer knew that the student would see it. As a result, less weight may be assigned to such letters.
- The student wanted to discuss the letter with the recommended/evaluator before the final draft was written.
- The student feels a moral obligation to exercise his/her civil rights.
Factors to Consider in Deciding to Waive Access
- If your recommender knows you well, and has said that he/she can write a letter in support of your candidacy, you may feel that you can trust that the person will not include inaccuracies or unfair statements in the letter.
- If you waive access, a member of an admissions committee might tentatively draw one or more of the following conclusions:
- The student has nothing to conceal
- The student has confidence in her/his ability to choose recommenders and did not feel it was necessary to review the letter before it was sent.
- The student does not feel a moral obligation to exercise his/her civil rights in this way. (It is, of course, impossible to know how each individual receiving the letters may react to the fact that a student did or did not exercise their rights under FERPA.)