Asking for References

Carefully consider the people from whom you will request letters of recommendation.

They should be people who know you well, respect you, and think very highly of you. Asking people for letters is sometimes difficult for students, but these letters are essential to your application. Consider getting letters from courses in which the sections are small enough for the faculty person to get to know you. But do not be afraid to ask a professor of a large course, especially if you did well.

Be direct about asking for a letter of recommendation. As difficult as it might seem, ask the potential letter writers if they are be able to write you a good (or strong) letter of recommendation. Most people will welcome this question because it will give them an opportunity to either answer in the affirmative or decline if they do not feel comfortable writing on your behalf. If you have used good judgment in choosing people, most answers should be “yes.” But if someone declines, ask someone else. If someone suggests that you would do better to get a letter from someone else instead, take the advice and move on. It is better, if possible, to ask in person than on email. However, if you are not in the area, explain where you are when you email.

When you choose people, put yourself in their position. Would you feel comfortable writing a good letter for you based on your performance? Did you do well in the course? If you did not do as well as you had hoped, did you at least demonstrate effort and show marked improvement? Were there unusual circumstances that prevented you from doing well that need an explanation from a faculty member? If you are asking a supervisor or employer, reflect on your performance. Did you do the bare minimum or were you an enthusiastic, highly motivated, and diligent worker? Did you take extra steps to learn about the field in which you were conducting research? Did you show up on time? Were you a good team player and colleague? If you look back at the experience and feel that you could write with enthusiasm about your performance, ask the faculty member or supervisor/employer for a letter.

Be careful not to underestimate your strengths when thinking about whom to ask. Sometimes students can be excessively modest. Also, do not underestimate how well a faculty member might know you. Sometimes students do not approach a teacher or employer because they feel they do not know the professor well enough--or the professor does not know them. But often faculty members know you much better than you think. And if you want the person to get to know you better, this could be a good opportunity to begin the process.

Make an appointment to meet with the faculty member to discuss the possibility of a letter and to present her or him with materials, such as a copy of your resume or personal statement that will help make the letter as good as it can be. Some faculty might want to see papers or exams you wrote that have their comments. The Center for Work and Service has published detailed guidelines for requesting letters of reference on its website. Be sure the letter writers know which medical profession(s) you are applying to. Alert them to deadlines.

Finally, thank the people who have written letters of recommendation on your behalf. At the completion of the process, be sure to inform them of your plans and thank them again. Writing letters of recommendation is very time-consuming. If the outcome is successful, give faculty who wrote for you a chance to share your joy. And if it was not successful, you should still tell them the outcome. They were interested enough in you to take a considerable amount of time to write the letter. In addition, they may need to update the letter for future use.

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