Health Careers - Letters of Recommendation

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How can I go about acquiring good letters of recommendation?

Ask for these letters in a way that makes it easy for the person to say no - so you won't be desperately getting letters late in the game. Say "I am thinking about who to ask for letters of evaluation to support my [medical or other health profession] application; I have these people in mind...and I was wondering if you would be willing to be a letter writer". This way it is easy for the person to say, "I think the people on your list are good, but I might not know you well enough". Get a clear answer and follow up with a thank you note/email - and hand "the Kit" off right away (see below).

When should I ask for the letter and do I need an A in the class before I can request a letter?

Consider your request and the timing of it from the letter writer's point of view. Instructors and professors at UC Berkeley expect to be asked to write letters; it is part of their role here.

Asking in advance is necessary and allowing time for gentle reminders (by you) during the school year is critical. People are well-intentioned, but busy. Ask during the regular school year so that you can find the person during her office hours when you need to check on the status of your letter.

It is fine to ask for a letter even three years before you may need it; get it while you and your learning style are fresh in the mind of your letter writer, and your learning relationship is strongest with that person.

A few professors may say that you must acquire a certain grade in order to ask for a letter; generally this is not the case. In general, schools don't care which grade you got in the letter writer's class; they want some insight into you as a learner. Sometimes struggling back from a dismal early test puts you in constant contact with your instructor or professor, so you may actually have a richer relationship, which translates into a more meaningful letter. If you get a letter as a sophomore and then actually apply to health professional school the June after your senior year, you might get in touch with that letter writer and tell him/her that you have refined your career goals and ask that he/she consider rewriting that letter. If he has deleted you from his hard drive, you can ask the Letter Service to send him a hard copy, which will help him rewrite a letter about your focus and progress as a learner.

Who makes the best letter writer?

Someone who:

  • knows you well
  • has the title "professor"
  • is a professor at the school granting your bacc degree
  • has earned the degree which you are seeking in your graduate work
  • has academically evaluated you (i.e. given you a grade)
  • has written letters of evaluation for other students and aided their entry into professional / graduate school

The profile above is the ideal. In this competitive business of getting into health professional school, you want to put your best self forward. For medical school, it is best to get two science and one non-science professor-written letters that offer genuine insight into you as a learner and a community member. A humanities or social sciences instructor is a "non-science" letter writer.

My GSI really knows me; can I use her letter?

If needed, strategize with the GSI to have her draft a letter of evaluation, then forward it to the professor, using the term "we". "We saw Mr. Conner stuggle before the midterm and we were impressed with his tenacity and capacity to master the material". Then, the letter is signed by two people on the same line at the bottom of the page. Sometimes GSIs are willing to provide some written insight or notes and the letter is written/finished and signed solely by the faculty member. You will need to give your kit to both the GSI and the professor and see how they want to do business.

As a general rule, it is better to have letters written by professors rather than GSIs. The reason for the "more senior the better" stance is that by virtue of experience the older person may be in a better position to evaluate the student and to compare the applicant to current and previous classes of students. GSIs often write fine letters and frequently write parts or all of letters which professors sign or co-sign. Having a GSI's letter co-signed by a professor adds to its strength, especially if the professor can add useful comments. It is better to have a strong letter from a GSI than a letter from a professor that says little or nothing. But you should resist the temptation to settle for the GSI letter even though it's often easier to get to know a GSI than a professor. Some schools specifically state that they will only accept letters from professors, not lecturers or graduate students. Other admissions officers have told the Career Center that they prefer letters that provide new insight on the applicant, and with this in mind may prefer the more specific letter, even if from a GSI. Letters from family physicians, friends, political figures and the like usually are discouraged and may, in fact, be detrimental.

What should I provide my letter writer? (the "Kit")

Give each of your letter writers a "Kit" which includes:

  • Your unofficial (telebears) transcript
  • Your personal statement or statement of purpose (at least a draft)
  • Your resume
  • A cover note from you that reminds the faculty of the following: when you met, classes you took that may be of interest to the letter writer, challenges and interesting learning moments for you in the letter writer's course, the last time you interacted with the professor, and descriptions of other letter writers (e.g., my independent study history professor and my genetics course instructor are also writing letters to support my application), and what you especially hope she or he will comment on when writing the letter.
  • Some letter writers appreciate reading our guidelines to help them address what health professional schools are looking for.
  • A copy of any papers, publications, sketches, lab evaluations, or other items that will give the prof or boss or volunteer coordinator insight into your interests and abilities
  • After talking with health professional schools, we have developed a grid form and recommend you give this form to your letter writer to complete and write the letter on. See the Letter Service section of this site to get the details on this service here at Cal, which requires a fee on your part.
  • Bring your forms with you as part of your Kit and complete all of the information about you; make it easy for your letter writer to get this document completed in a timely way.
  • Bring a prepared, stamped envelope so that your letter of recommendation will be sent US mail to the Career Center Letter Service (or to your schools).

Be certain to open and close the note with thanks, and an acknowledgement that the letter writer's time is valuable, and that their efforts in writing this letter are important to your professional future.

Why should I use the Letter Service at the Career Center?

If you are applying to more than three schools (and most of you applying to health professional school are in this category), or you think you want your letters held for other opportunities (like graduate school) in the future, you should plan to use the Letter Service. Your letter writers will write one letter and fill out one form, rather than a different form for every school and fellowship program. Check out the tips for you and guidelines to help your letter writer.

Do schools care if letters are confidential or not?

Health professional schools are all a little different in this regard. Some admissions officers tell us that their file readers don't seem to notice. Others say that it displays more confidence on the part of the applicant if letters are "confidential" (meaning you, the applicant, cannot see the letter). As of August 1, 2001, the Letter Service is required to indicate on the letter if it is confidential or non-confidential. You should only request letters of evaluation from individuals you are confident will give insight into you and your abilities and will be an advocate for you. You will not receive any feedback from any Career Center staff on your letter file as we take very seriously the confidential nature of your letters.