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The Ws of Letters

Letters of evaluation are an extremely important component of any medical, dental, or veterinary school application. As a play on the word “letters” and a nod to a childhood favorite, Sesame Street, we will use “W” as the letter of the day to help explore some important points about letters. 

What is a letter of evaluation? 

Letters of evaluation are personal narratives that individuals who know you well provide to the members of admissions committees in order to help them better understand you, the applicant. Obtaining letters from people who know you in a variety of capacities will enhance an admissions committee’s understanding of who you are, your interests, your motivations and talents, and will allow them to make a more informed decision about whether you are a good fit for their professional school.

Why do admissions committees want letters of evaluation? 

The “evaluation” part of the name indicates that the admissions committees want letter writers to go beyond just simply recommending you for admission. They want letter writers to evaluate your likelihood of success in a professional program AND to evaluate your potential to become an outstanding healthcare provider. If you have chosen your letter writers well, these letters will of course recommend you for admission, but the objective is that your letter writers will generate an informative, honest and objective evaluation of your potential.

Who should you ask for letters of evaluation? 

Who you should ask to provide letters for you is not entirely straightforward. The letters you ask for will depend on your personal journey. Many professional schools strongly encourage letters from faculty members, particularly faculty in the sciences. Insight into your performance and success in your science courses is useful information for admissions committees. Consider including some variety in your choice of letter writers. Three letters from three different veterinarians may not provide much new information from letter to letter. For example, if you are doing research, then a letter from your research advisor is appropriate. If you are employed, then a letter from your employer is appropriate. Other appropriate letters might be from volunteer coordinators, laboratory coordinators (if you teach science labs), military commanders, a pre-health advisor, and of course healthcare providers that you have shadowed, volunteered or worked with. 

If you attend a large university with large classes, it is important that you make the effort to get to know your science faculty starting early on. If you have been out of school for a while, it is important that you maintain or re-establish regular contact with faculty members who may not have seen you for a while. The key point is that you need to go the extra mile to develop solid, meaningful relationships with some of the people who have influenced you during your journey towards professional school. People who barely know you will produce brief, vague and uninformative letters for you, which is not in your best interest. People who know you well will provide informative, meaningful evaluations.

When should you ask for your letters? 

In a general sense, you should ask for letters close to the time that you will be applying. so that your letters are clearly up-to-date, fresh, and relevant. A letter that was written a year or more in the past does not send a positive message to the admissions committees. It suggests that the person writing the letter has not seen or heard from you in a year (or more) and has no idea what you have done or accomplished recently. If you are re-applying, it is appropriate to ask letter writers from a previous application cycle to write letters for you again, but they should generate new, updated letters that show that you have maintained contact with the letter writer since the last application cycle. 

More specifically, demonstrate professionalism and give your letter writers plenty of advanced notice when asking them for letters. Asking at least one month ahead is courteous and respectful. This means you need to think about when you want your application file to be complete, and then work backwards in time to calculate when to request letters.

How should you request a letter? 

OK, so “How” does not start with the letter W. But this is important information, and “how” contains the letter w, so let’s just roll with it!

This is another good opportunity for you to demonstrate professionalism. Bear in mind that your letter writers are likely to spend hours researching, composing, editing, and then uploading a letter for you. That type of effort deserves more than just a quickly composed email from you asking if they will write a letter. Making the request in person is the most professional way to request a letter. Rather than just asking someone if they will write a letter of recommendation for you, ask whether they feel they can produce a strong, positive, personal evaluation of you. There is a big difference, and the latter is what you should be aiming for. If you ask about an evaluation, and your letter writer tells you that they do not think they can, then you should thank them graciously for their honesty and select someone different.

If someone agrees to write a letter for you, be prepared to offer them supporting materials to help them generate a strong, personal letter for you. This might involve a meeting or interview to help your letter writer better understand your motivation and preparation for professional school. You should be prepared to provide them with your transcript, a copy of your personal statement, your resume, or anything else that they might want.

Don't forget to inform them about the TMDSAS Letters of Evaluation Requirements to avoid having their letter rejected!

Be prepared to suggest a deadline for uploading your letter to TMDSAS. Many people like and work well with deadlines. Do not be shy about providing a gentle, courteous reminder if the deadline you established is getting close and it does not appear that your letter has been uploaded yet. Letters are an important component of your application and you need to take ownership of making sure that they are submitted. When your letter writer has submitted their letter, do not forget to thank them. A handwritten thank you note is an excellent gesture.

Being thoughtful about the process of securing letters of evaluation will help your application to professional school. Hopefully, the next "W" word you will hear, after the admissions process is complete, is "Welcome" to the incoming professional school class!


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About the author: The Texas Health Education Service amplifies TMDSAS and JAMP’s missions to serve students, collegiate advisors, and professional schools in Texas by providing students with accurate educational resources to enhance their preparation for a career in the health professions, and supporting efforts by advisors and professional schools to reach students and enrich the applicant pool.

Inside Health Education

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