First of all, some programs refer to letters as evaluation letters rather than recommendation letters. They want an honest portrait of you as a person and scholar, so they expect to see things you need to work on as well as things you are already good at. Different programs may ask for different kinds of letters. Generally speaking, medical and dental programs need two science faculty letters and one non-science faculty letter plus any others you wish to use (no more than 6 total for medical schools and 4 for dental schools). The tricky part is defining science/non-science. At IU School of Medicine, they prefer that one of your letters be from science faculty who taught your classes that can be designated as biology, physics, or chemistry. All others are considered non-science. Other schools don't define this quite so clearly. You may need to check with schools to which you wish to apply to make sure you have what you need.
It is important that you select letter writers who have come to know you. A letter that states you were in the top 10% of a class of 300 doesn't really tell the schools very much. So you need to go to professors' office hours, ask questions, go to class, be on time, look interested, basically act professionally in your approach to courses. Give faculty a chance to get to know you. You should be working on this throughout your college career.
If the best letter you have will be from a graduate teaching assistant (this is not given as much weight as a faculty letter), then you should ask the graduate student to write the letter but have it signed first by the faculty member and then next to that put the graduate student's signature with the credentials underneath. This way the programs know a faculty member (who presumably has more experience with evaluating students in comparison to other students) looked at it and changed anything that was not appropriate for evaluating a student in comparison to other students in that program.
Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
- First and foremost, be courteous. You are making a request that takes considerable time. Professors do not have to write a letter for you.
- Ideally, faculty and others writing your letters should be familiar with medical and health care education, knowledgeable about the qualities that admissions committees are seeking, able to compare you with your peers, and well acquainted with you.
- You should request letters 2-3 months in advance.
- When approaching people about writing a letter for you, you should :
- Explain what your plan is.
- Ask: "Do you feel you can write a letter in support of my application?" If you sense any hesitancy, you should discuss this then decide whether to continue with your request.
- "May we set up a time to talk about and review my qualifications?"
- Provide a brief resume and autobiography to the evaluator. These should be typed.
- Follow up to POLITELY verify that letters have been sent. Rather than asking if they have done it, for example, you could ask if they need any more information from you to assist them in writing it.
- Decide whether you will keep your right of access to the letter or waive your access under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws and let your letter writer know your decision. (This is on the forms used by the Center for Pre-Professional Advising office professional file service.) Professional schools may view letters that you have read with a bit of suspicion. Maintaining your access tends to alert the professional schools that you were expecting something negative in the letter. Still, it is your legal right to maintain access so that you can read them and you just need to let the Center for Pre-Professional Advising office and your letter writer know of your decision.