Tag Archives: letter of intent

Behind the Scenes: How I Read a Faculty Application

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

You want to create the best possible application.  Providing you insight into my process of reviewing an application for a faculty position may help improve it.  Fortunately, the competition for most veterinary faculty positions isn’t particularly fierce, so you are rarely competing against many applicants.  Remember, the purpose of an application for a faculty position is to get you an interview. When I read an application, this is my primary consideration: should we offer an interview or not?

Letter of intent.  It needs to be free of obvious flaws like spelling and grammar errors.  I want to make sure the applicant knows the position to which they are applying.  If they indicate they would like a lab for a strong research program, and the position is primarily a clinical one, that suggests a disconnect and they may not be a good fit.  I don’t have high expectations for the letter, it just needs to be not terrible.

Curriculum vitae.  This needs to be organized chronologically so I can see clearly what the applicant has done from undergrad to their current position.  I want to see teaching and research productivity. For a more senior position, I want to see organization participation (e.g. with their specialty college) and journal reviewer responsibilities.  Depending on the position, publications can range from one (new resident applying for a clinical position) to many (applying at an associate professor level in a tenure-track position).  For a clinical specialist, I look for their board certification status.

Letters of recommendation.  As always, I look for evidence of collegiality, humility, and positivity.  Actually, I look for evidence that any of these things is NOT present. It may not mean they don’t get an interview offer, but it will frame the questions I ask during an interview.

Personal contacts.  If I know people at the institution where the applicant currently works, I will call them up and chat.  I am looking for the same information as in letters of recommendation.

As mentioned before, in a faculty application, I mostly look for evidence that the person would NOT be good to work with.  If they seem basically competent and collegial, unless there are many applicants, I will recommend an interview.

Behind the Scenes: How I Read an Internship Application

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I thought it would be helpful to share my personal process for reading an internship application.  This is a highly personalized process- please don’t assume that others go through the same process. Nonetheless, I thought it would be helpful to share what goes through my brain, so here it is:

First, the internship application through the match is organized like this: standard application information (entered when you apply through the VIRMP), letter of intent, CV, transcripts, letters of recommendation.

From the standard application, I scroll down to the veterinary education section.  I notice if they went to school at an AVMA-accredited program or an unaccredited program.  I note the class rank and graduation date. I glance at the references to get an impression of what sorts of letters they have.  Very little hard decisions are made at this step- it’s just collecting data.

The letter of intent is where I begin to apply some discrimination.  Is it more than one page? If so, I probably won’t read it unless it appears to be an _incredibly_ unusual applicant.  If it’s more than one page, I will review the rest of their materials to decide, “Is this person even worth considering?”  The vast majority of the time, the answer is “no”, so my job is done and I move onto the next. If the letter is one page or less, I skim it until I find an interesting, useful, unique piece of information, then read that segment in detail.  I also read for grammar and spelling errors. I consider how they structured concepts and what I learned about the applicant. The letter is extremely important to me and I will start to put the applicant into one of three bins- not rankable, rankable good, rankable OK.

For the CV, I check to see if they have any obvious gaps in professional progression not addressed in their letter of intent.  If so, this is a red flag. Have they done research- if so, what was their role? If they were the first author on a submitted publication, great.  Otherwise, I don’t think much of research experience. Did they have an officer role in a club? What is interesting about their experience? Did they travel?  How will I summarize this person in my Excel file where I track all applicants (see below)? The CV is not a major deciding factor for me but helps fill in the picture of the applicant.

The transcripts are fluff for me.  I skim them briefly to see if there are any “D” or “F” grades and, if so, in what subject they are.  If not, I spend no time on the transcripts unless they are from international applicants. In that case, I review them carefully to get an idea of what academic material this person has studied.

The letters of recommendation, with the letter of intent, form the greatest portion of my evaluation.  In the letters, I look at the qualifications of the letter writer, are they from the applicant’s current institution, how many interns they have worked with, and their connection with the applicant.  I then skim the ratings of clinical & technical skills and professionalism to see if there are any particularly low marks. Most of my time is spent reading the qualitative data provided in the remarks section.

In the qualitative remarks, I primarily look to see if the person is easy to work with, eager to learn and accept feedback and act in a positive, professional manner.  If the letter is not very detailed, that is also flagged as concerning. I will also look for indications of humility, eagerness to work, and emotional intelligence. It is rare to read a letter which is not laudatory, so I need to read between the lines.  Remarks which focus on the intelligence of the applicant, without mention of them being easy to work with, are flagged as problematic.

Once I have read through everything, I will go back and make notes in an Excel document which has the following column headings: name, class rank, education/experience, letter, clubs, miscellaneous, research, references, score.  I make short notes for each of these and then make a determination of placement: do not rank, rank in bottom third, rank in the middle third, rank in the top third.

So, that’s the process.  This forms the basis for some of my advice, and it may differ among evaluators.  Maybe some people care a LOT about research, maybe others ONLY consider the objective data provided in letters of recommendation.  However, in discussion with dozens of colleagues, most of them follow a similar process to that described here. So I think this is a helpful start for you to review.

Internship Letter Mistakes

This is a specialized version of a post I have about general application letter writing advice, aimed at intern applicants.

Writing an internship application letter is hard.  I’m sorry. Intern applicant evaluators are so widely varied, you can’t possibly write the ideal letter unless you happen to A) know the evaluators and B) apply to only one institution.  Fortunately, there are some “wrong” ways to write an intern letter. Let’s look at them.

First, think from the evaluator’s standpoint.  They have a monumental challenge- reviewing possibly several hundred applicants for a handful of positions.  It is a grueling, churning, time-sucking task that they get very little thanks for. If you give them the opportunity to rapidly assess your letter as not-rankable, it saves them the trouble of reading your CV and letters of recommendation and thus saves them time.

Here are the rules to keep your letter from getting tossed into the do-not-rank pile.

One page or less.  I know some evaluators read two-page letters.  I know more who use this as an instant rejection.  You should be able to express yourself succinctly.

Good grammar and spelling. This may seem obvious, but I would say a full 20% of letters I read fail this test.  Have other people read your letter _carefully_ with a fine-toothed comb and make sure they are brutally honest.

Good use of English.  This one is hard for non-native speakers, but it is very obvious when it is present.  If your English is good but not native, find several native speakers to review and correct it.  We use language in odd ways in English.  The Japanese small old car is technically correct but does not sound the same as the small old Japanese car.

Avoid a TOO-unique letter.  We will talk about injecting your own style when we discuss the DOs of letter writing, but if your letter is quirky or eccentric, this may work for some evaluators but not for others.  This is highly polarizing with people who feel very strongly on both sides. Don’t risk it.

Don’t use odd word choices or excessive Thesaurus use.  This may not get you an instant rejection, but in a study where we analyzed intern applicant letters, letters that had odd word choices and excessive Thesaurus use consistently ranked lower. Keep it simple.

Don’t be boastful or arrogant.  I think there is some advice out there on the internet that you need to be assertive and confident in your application letters.  Maybe this is true for business, but it is not true in academia. In our study, none of the evaluators indicated ‘confidence’ as an important characteristic of a letter writer.  Some people may not notice or care about this, but I know many evaluators find those who display arrogance in their letter and veto their application.

Some examples: “I am confident  about my general medical knowledge across different fields…”, “I am highly motivated, quick to understand medical topics, detail oriented and capable of multitasking. I have the ability to get along well with just about anyone.”, and “I achieved a 4.0 GPA my first semester and eventually finished my studies at Unseen University in the top 5% of my class and as a member of Phi Zeta.”

As noted in the introduction, evaluators are an extremely heterogeneous group, and you can’t possibly avoid all pitfalls of all evaluators.  Maybe some don’t like anything other than a five-paragraph-essay format. Maybe others will reject any letter with the word “yellow” in it. It’s impossible to predict all the things evaluators may reject you on.  However, in my experience (and our research), these were the most prominent, consistent, and important. Write your letters accordingly and, if you need help, please reach out to me.

Sample Vetducator Corrections for 2019 Letters of Intent

Image by Anne Karakash from Pixabay

I thought I would share with you the way I have worked with students in the past and the sorts of comments I provide.  In general, I try to offer the writer the perspective an evaluator will have. This sometimes comes off as blunt, but I’m trying to genuinely share what goes through my mind.  You can see that I don’t rewrite things, just offer suggestions, so it is still the original author’s work; their work with added editing and expert advice. These are all anonymous and submitted with the author’s permission.

Examples of Poor Letters of Intent

The Vetducator- Bad Apple
Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

We have previously given examples of good stories in letters of intent, so I wanted to take the opportunity to show some examples of poor letters of intent.  These examples are from letters which were overall evaluated as “unrankable” for internships, but they apply to any stage of your professional progression. Although the entire letter was given a low value, I wanted to sample the specific segments I think are most illustrative.

“Whether it’s researching alternative therapies for treating an incontinent cat, working a busy ten hour shift in the ER, or consoling an upset client, I really enjoy my work. I am positive, hardworking, determined, organized, and good at working with others. I love to research and think outside the box when it comes to addressing challenging cases. I love working with cats, dogs, and pet exotics. I particularly enjoy emergency medicine, internal medicine, and companion exotic animal medicine.  Being on the verge of completing veterinary school at Unseen University in the top 10% of my class, I want to pursue further study with a one year internship followed by a residency in exotics. I am looking for a rigorous small animal internship in which I can have primary case responsibility, a heavy and varied case load, and the opportunity to continue learning under the guidance of veterinary specialists.”

As an opening paragraph, it is an abrupt start.  A little bit of a lead-in would be nice. It is highly self-promoting: telling the reader how amazing the author is.  They give some indication of what they want, but not why.

“An internship will provide me an opportunity to expand my knowledge base under the guidance of mentors and will continue to grow my veterinary school technical education. It is my desire to be trained by committed and passionate people who are experienced in helping interns to develop a good medical judgment and clinical skills. Likewise* the high volume of clinical cases in specialty practices will assist me to learn and manage multiple cases efficiently. A private practice internship will also enable me to provide optimal care for patients, learn to maximize customer service, and provide opportunities to develop interpersonal relationships with clients.”

What in the world does this entire paragraph tell me?  Of course an internship will help you grow. Everyone wants to be trained by great people.  The high volume is a good detail- I know this person would be a better fit for a busy practice than a slow, cerebral one.  I think ANY job would help you provide optimal care for patients, work on customer service, and work on interpersonal relationships.

“As there is increasing public interest in exotic and nontraditional companion animals* I have exploited every opportunity to continue my education and clinical training with species beyond those routinely presented to the Unseen University Teaching Hospital.  As a zoological and wildlife intern at numerous institutions I was responsible for patient care, heard health, public health, animal husbandry, and patient medical records. Through my direct interactions with chief veterinarians at esteemed zoological institutions I participated in numerous procedures, as listed on my C.V., and attended journal clubs and quality of life meetings.  Professional collaboration was essential in these settings as I discussed patient care and wellbeing with multiple individuals whom were all invested in the same animal, yet possessed differing degrees of medical knowledge. I have knowledge of avian, reptilian and mammalian wildlife, including proper handling and restraint through my experiences caring for these species at the Nature Center and Unseen University Wildlife Ward.”

Let’s analyze each sentence:

1 – Convoluted.  How have you exploited them?  Exploited is not a good word choice.

2 – Misspelling error in ‘heard health’.  Also, how is this different from anyone else?  Of course you’ve done medical records. What do you want, a cookie?

3 – Great, if it’s on your CV, why is it here?  I HAVE your CV, why waste valuable letter space on this?

4 – I can’t even unpack this sentence. “Whom” should be “who”.

5 – Great, you have skills.  I’m not too interested in skills- I can teach you what you need to know.  How are you to WORK with? Based on this, self-promoting and superficial.

* – Missing comma.

I know these applicants were sincere and dedicated and really wanted a position.  I do not want to dismiss their passion. Unfortunately, passion is not enough. They didn’t reach out to mentors and friends for feedback, resulting in relatively poor letters.  I hope you can learn from them, and avoid these missteps.

Examples of Good Stories from Letters of Intent

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Once, I read a letter of intent from an applicant which was filled with personal, but relevant, stories.  It created a compelling narrative which I believe made them a great applicant.

That, right there, is a narrative story.  It relates an event on a personal level, rather than just relating the facts.  Another way to start this post may have been: Stories are important because mankind has used storytelling for as long as we have had language, and they create powerful engagement with a listener/reader.  Each opener works fine, but I believe the storytelling one is slightly better. You can use this same strategy in your letter of intent.

One of the most common recommendations I give to applicants as well as interviewees is: tell a story.  Relate it to your own personal experience. Behavioral interviewing regularly uses this strategy, such as: “Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult ethical decision.”  Given this recommendation, I thought it may be helpful to provide some examples of particularly good stories. These have been made anonymous and unidentifiable.

“During my time at <shop>, I worked to expand our product lines, reach out to our alumni, partner with Unseen University’s SCAVMA for mutual benefit, and move to a new location. Between the growth in available merchandise, development of a user-friendly website, increase in foot traffic, and more optimal hours – <the shop> has been able to generate revenue and continue giving back to the college.”

“When I moved to the States from Another Country, I knew very little English.  Many have told me ‘it’s impossible, you can’t do it’; but this only motivated me to push myself, and work incredibly hard to overcome these barriers and strive to pursue my goals with excellence.  Today, many are not even able to pick up on my accent and I hope to bring this ‘can-do’ attitude to your institution.”

“Working in a surgery referral practice* I had the opportunity to see firsthand the immense value added to an owner’s life when their pet’s life is saved or its quality of life is improved, and that is when I finally realized that I wanted to become a veterinarian.”

* – There should be a comma here.

“Through my unique experience pursuing an MPH, my eyes have been opened to the human influence present in veterinary medicine. This, in turn, has made me more aware of the importance in recognizing the human-animal bond and cultural influences when it comes to animal health and welfare. Teaching classes to children and adults has shaped my development as an effective communicator during my clinical year at Unseen University. It is my hope to continuing exploring this perspective at your institution.”

“I can remember the feeling of profound amazement the first time I was able to watch the motion of a beating heart during a partial lung lobectomy procedure, the frustration of a meticulously placed cortical screw giving way, the disappointment of being unable to help a critical patient, and the confusion of an atypical presentation. It seems that Murphy’s Law has a special place for veterinary medicine in its heart. These experiences provided me the opportunity to witness creative thinking when things did not go as planned, taught me that dedication to our patients, clients, and colleagues helps to ensure a smooth running machine, and demonstrated the importance of perseverance when progress seems impossible.”

“As the daughter of two veterinarians, I was exposed to both the professional and personal aspects of veterinary medicine from a young age. Working at my parents’ small animal general practice for many years showed me the emotional and mental fulfillment that comes from caring for people and their animals as well as solving medical challenges on a daily basis.”

“Recently, I externed at a large multi-specialty center and met diplomates in various disciplines as well as the current interns. This gave me a chance to get familiar with the expectations of an intern. I saw the long working hours, financial restraints and sleepless nights during internship. I see these hardships as seeds of dedication and passion that will help me bloom into a well-informed, more confident and skillful clinician. I was inspired seeing the diplomates, residents and interns working on very challenging cases. I aspire to be like them one day and hope one day to inspire others.”

What I hope you will see with all of these examples is not just a recitation of facts, but an interpretation of the experience.  “I had this happen, this is what I learned.” This is the core of storytelling- the Hero’s Journey.  You have a challenge, and you learn from it.  It’s a simple narrative but, if you can apply it to your letters, I believe they will be more compelling.

Using ETC., E.G., and I.E. Correctly

This is a short, but important, PSA-style blog entry.  You are probably using abbreviations like i.e., e.g., and etc. incorrectly in your applications.  It isn’t a fatal flaw, but it is really distracting to those of us who spend a lot of time reading and writing.  So here is a quick, simple guide on the use of these abbreviations.

i.e. should be read as “that is”.  For example: I went on a long journey (i.e. a trip across the country) before I started college.  This is identical to writing: I went on a long journey- that is, a trip across the country- before I started college.

e.g. should be read as “for example”.  For example: I went on many adventures (e.g. helping a village care for its goats in Nepal) during my year before college.  This is identical to writing: I went on many adventures, for example, helping a village care for its goals in Nepal, during my year before college.

etc. should be read as “and so forth”.  For example: During my year before college, I walked, hiked, biked, flew, etc. around the world.  This is identical to writing: During my year before college, I walked, hiked, biked, flew, and so forth around the world.

It is rare that a sentence contains all three of these abbreviations, so in general I would suggest you avoid using more than one.  After you use one, go back and read it with the literal definitions I have given above and see if they make sense. These three are often confused, and it reflects a certain lack of attention to detail if you commit this error.

The 8 Steps of Writing an Application Letter

I’ve written a lot about the ideas you should express in letters of application, and even some specific suggestions on what to include.  We’ve talked about what not to do and what goals you should have, but one of my editors suggested I write an actual nuts-and-bolts-how-to-style post about writing an application letter, so here you go.  How to write an application letter in eight steps.

1) Sit down at your computer and open your word processing program

2) Write: To Members of the Selection Committee

3) Write: I am applying for <insert position>.  I am currently <your professional role>

4) Write down everything you can think of about yourself which makes you an excellent candidate.  Write down everything you can think of about your interest in the position. It should be many pages long

5) Trim.  And trim. And trim.  Take the best parts of what you have written in step 4.  It needs to be one page, no more

6) Proofread.  Edit, clean up sentences, make sure the grammar is correct.  Make sure the ideas flow from one to the next

7) Give it to friends, family, mentors- anyone whose opinion you respect.  Ask them to use Track Changes or similar to make changes and comments. Read all the comments and changes and take the ones you like

8) Read it again.  Does every sentence serve a purpose?  Is there any rambling? Do you use decisive wording or do you sound wishy-washy?  Sharpen it

Now you are done.  You have to do this for each step of your professional progression.  Don’t refer back to what you wrote for vet school when you’re applying for internships.  Start fresh. And remember Kaizen– continuous improvement. Each iteration should be better than the last.  Have fun and good luck!

Mastering the Internship Application Timeline

The process to make your application most competitive for an internship starts long before your senior year.  Each step along the way is important, and poor decisions can make it progressively harder to be an excellent candidate.  Here is a timeline to help you be the best internship applicant you can be.

First Year – Get involved in at least one vet school club.  Work hard so you are a shoo-in for an officer position next year.

First Summer – Participate in a summer research scholars program or equivalent professional experience.  This does not mean going back to the clinic you worked at growing up. That does not add to your CV.

Second Year – Be a leader in your club(s).  Now that you have the hang of vet school, make sure you have at least one extracurricular activity you could put on your CV in addition to the club responsibility.

Second Summer – If you didn’t do a summer research program last year, do one this year.  If you already did one, try to get some professional-adjacent experience, ideally overseas or with under-served and/or marginalized and/or low SES populations.

Choosing Rotations – This may happen in your second or third year.  See the post on maximizing your senior year for internship success when choosing rotations.

Third Year – Study study, pay attention, show up, and do the work.  These classes are often the most clinically applicable. If you can get a handle on the material now, you will be a more competent senior student.  If possible, wrap up any lingering projects from earlier in vet school- you may not have time during senior year.

Fourth Year – At the start of each rotation, let the faculty know you are interested in an internship.  If you did well, at the end of the rotation, ask if they would be willing to write a good letter of recommendation for you.

  • September – Begin working on your letter of intent and CV.  You want lots of input from mentors and friends on this- give them time to give it to you.  Begin to research prospective programs.
  • October – You should have most of your letters of recommendation requested by now.  If you have a rotation in November, you may wait for one of them. If you didn’t ask your potential letter writer at the end of the rotation, ask them now.  Do not wait. Your letter of intent and CV should be in near final form.
  • November – Make the last tweaks on your letter of intent and CV.  All of your letters of recommendation should have been requested by now.  Narrow down your list of programs to which you want to apply and rank.
  • December – Match applications are due.  After submission, some programs may want to do phone or video or even in-person interviews.
  • January – Your rank order is due and the programs submit their rank order later in the month.
  • February – Match results come out!  The Scramble happens in the event you didn’t match.  Hopefully, you have a position now and can cruise until graduation.

If you aren’t sure if you want to do an internship, that is just fine.  I advise any students who are on the fence to proceed as if they will apply for an internship.  If they decide not to, no worries. But if they did not prepare and decide they do want to apply later, it can be an uphill battle.  Start early and be prepared. Have any questions about how to prepare? Post in the comments!

Please Use Commas

I was reading some residency application letters and my head was almost exploding.  Everyone has their “thing”, and maybe I have more than most, but I am passionate about appropriate comma placement.  I wouldn’t sink an application for poor comma use, but it just grates on me, and why would you want to irritate the people who may make your professional dreams come true?  I am not a grammar nut and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of rules- those you can find elsewhere.  

The most common error I see in letters of application is not using the comma as a pause.  The most bothersome absent comma is the one needed to create an appropriate rhythm to the sentence.  Here are some examples. Say the one without the comma out loud. When you say that sentence, isn’t there a natural pause?  That pause is where a comma goes.

No commaAppropriate comma
As a student I worked with a faculty on a special project.As a student, I worked with a faculty on a special project
No I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.No, I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.
I did some research and did a RAVS trip.I did some research, and did a RAVS trip.
When I did an externship in Costa Rica I experienced the connection between people animals and the environment.When I did an externship in Costa Rica, I experienced the connection between people, animals, and the environment.
When I saw my first case a 5-year-old GSD I realized this was real.When I saw my first case, a 5-year-old GSD, I realized this was real.
Fortunately I was able to work with great mentors.Fortunately, I was able to work with great mentors.

I could go on.  My point is you should pay attention to this.  It doesn’t mean you’re a monster, but it does make me question your attention to detail.  If your letter of intent has these kinds of simple flaws, will you have the attention to detail needed for good records or research?  Be detail-oriented in your written materials. And please, PLEASE have other people read and edit your letters!