Letters of Recommendation – Our Recommendations for Getting Them

August 7, 2013

References are an extremely important part of any application.  However, many people struggle with knowing what is the best way, and whom do you ask, for great letters of recommendation.

Generally speaking, you should aim to get at least three letters of recommendation. Although the common thread throughout these should be you, each letter should be unique, helping elucidate a different aspect of your candidacy—whether that is your education, technical and research skills, leadership abilities or beyond.

Whom to ask?
Ask someone who knows you very well! Although this might sound obvious, many individuals are lured by the appeal of having a well-known scientist write a recommendation.  It is much better to ask someone who is exceptionally familiar with your work, and who can clearly speak to your strengths.

Your recommenders will vary depending on your specific career plans and focus, but may include:

  • Dissertation/academic advisers
  • Supervisors if you are a postdoc
  • Someone who can speak to your teaching abilities and/or your experience in industry or non-bench activities
  • If you are looking for a letter for medical school or graduate school:
    — Summer research experience mentor
    — Faculty member who taught a hard science course

When to ask?
Ask early! A surefire way to receive a lukewarm, or worse—a negative, letter of recommendation is to not give enough advanced notice to your recommender. Four to six weeks of advance notice is standard; however, as an added courtesy, you could ask earlier and see what would be a feasible timeline for your recommender. It is always better to ask in advance and then as the deadline approaches, you can send friendly reminders of the impending due date. Periodic reminders will not be resented and will reflect favorably on your organizational skills.

You can also ask for letters of recommendation as you are wrapping up an experience.  If you are graduating, finishing an internship or completing your postdoc, it is a good idea to ask for a recommendation now. Even if these letters aren’t immediately used, it can be helpful to ask while your work is still fresh in their minds. If needed and/or appropriate, you can always ask for updates at a later time.

How to ask?
Ask personally! It is to your advantage to ask face-to-face. By having an in-person meeting, you can explain your career plans and have a thoughtful conversation about what could give you a competitive edge during the application process. This is also your opportunity to candidly ask if they are willing to write a positive letter for you and to ensure that they don’t have any reservations about your candidacy. In the moment, this can be a difficult conversation to have; however, in the long run, this is a necessary starting point to ensure your work is getting the best endorsement possible.

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Preparing for the Application Season

June 3, 2013

Regardless of whether you are planning on applying to Graduate School or Professional school, a successful application requires preparation.  If you remember one word from this post, remember “Early.”  Take your exams (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) early.  Get your letters of recommendation lined up early.  Write your personal statement early.  Have someone look over your materials early.  Submit your applications early.  When you get an interview, show up early.

For those applying to graduate school:

You will want to have your GRE taken by the end of August or beginning of September.  This means you need to start studying now.  In particular, you need to go back and review your high school math.  If you don’t use, you lose it.  The chances are that you haven’t used much of what will be on the test in your four (or more) years of undergrad.  You need to take practice exams…lots of them.  Much of successful test taking is being comfortable and familiar with the format.  Reading about the format is not the same as practicing it.

So why do you need to get your GRE done so early?  So you can know whether or not to retake the exam.  If you are unsure whether your scores are strong enough for a particular program, ask the Director of that program.  Unlike Medical School, these programs are trying to recruit you.  Most of the time, the program directors will respond directly to your e-mail asking about the strength of your application.   Writing in with your scores early shows that you are prepared and organized.  Writing in late, shows just the opposite.

For those applying to professional schools:  This specific material is written for Medical School applications, but the principles apply to all professional school applications.

Submit your AMCAS as soon as possible (note, that is another way to say “Early”).  Ideally, you want to submit it with in two weeks of the opening. Do NOT wait for your MCATs.  You can always add more schools later depending on where your scores make you most competitive.  Your odds of acceptance decrease the later you submit your application.  You simply do not look prepared if your application comes in right before the terminal deadline.  Also, medical schools review applications in waves.  The sooner your application is in, the fewer competitors you have for the most number of invitations.

Once your applications are in, pay attention to your e-mail.  Even if you are on vacation, check it daily.  You want to get your secondaries turned around and back to the schools quickly.  You need to show that you are eager to get in and that you are organized enough to turn things around quickly.  If your secondary sits in your inbox for a week while you are relax on vacation, you look eager to relax on vacation and not attend medical school.

For all applicants:

Nothing is as valuable as face-to-face interactions with representatives of the schools you are applying to.  If you are in the Washington D. C. area, the NIH hosts a “Graduate and Professional School Fair” on July 17 in Bethesda.  This is really a first chance to meet admissions officers and make a strong impression.  There will be 153 programs in attendance to meet with postbacs and students as well as informational sessions geared toward specific disciplines such as med schools, dental school, pharmacy school, psychology programs, PhD programs in biomedical sciences.  If you are in the area, this really is an opportunity you do not want to miss.