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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
Competition for residencies is fierce. So many variables are out of your control- do they have a candidate in mind already? Do they know your mentors and references? Do they have some crazy GPA/Class Rank cutoff? Fortunately, one of the things in your control is your letter of intent. You need to make it excellent. Many of the rules for internship letters apply, with some important upgrades. Let’s start with the evidence.
There hasn’t been an analysis of veterinary residency application letters, so for data we need to go to the human side. There are numerous studies looking at residency applications in human medicine, so we will only look at a few.
In one study of human anesthesia programs, those applicants who included an interest in physiology and pharmacology were more likely to have an interview extended to them. In a study of dermatology applicants, they were more like to match for a dermatology residency if they included statements emphasizing the desire to study cutaneous manifestations of systemic disease, to contribute to a knowledge gap in the literature, and to better understand the pathophysiology of skin disease. Evidently, different disciplines look for different interests in their applicants.
On the veterinary side of things, you can’t go wrong by first avoiding common mistakes of letters of intent. Once you have navigated those, how do you go about creating a memorable, distinct, interesting letter which will help you secure a residency position? On the one hand, the idiosyncrasies of the evaluators will have a tremendous effect on how they read your letter, probably even more so than internship letters. On the other hand, you will probably be applying to fewer programs. If you know any of the evaluators at the programs, you may be able to tailor your letter. On the third hand, the same letter gets sent out to all programs. What is an applicant to do?
Clearly, you need to tell them why you want to pursue that specialty. Stories may help illustrate this, but be mindful they can appear trite if not done well. Sharing your long-term goals may be worthwhile to do at this point.
Much like in other letters, you need to indicate you know what is involved with this residency. Is there expected to be a lot of on call work? Will it be more physically demanding (surgery) or more mentally demanding (radiology)? Will it involve long hours with clients (oncology) or clients not even knowing you exist (anesthesiology)?
Drilling down into an understanding of what is needed by members of that specialty is what you are looking for. If you are applying for a zoo med residency, it’s obviously because you want to play with the charismatic megafauna- so does everyone else who is applying for that position. If you can elaborate on how the different responses to drugs among phylogenetic orders captures your fascination, that is rather more distinct and illustrates you know what is needed or interesting about the specialty.
As always, my advice is to be sincere and genuine. If you don’t like teaching students, don’t say you do in your letter. If you don’t like doing research, don’t highlight that. Residencies want to make sure you will work hard, you will get along with people, you won’t create problems, and you will reflect well on the program once done. Highlight those considerations.
Ultimately the residency letter probably matters less than the internship or vet school letter. At this level, most of your success is likely due to personal contacts and references. But you can still make sure your letter doesn’t give them a reason to cut your application.
How can you demonstrate you are an effective communicator in a single page in a letter of intent? We’ve covered mistakes to avoid as well as a general structure for application letters. Now we need to progress on to the kinds of detailed feedback I often give letter writers.
Make an outline. You may not have done this since you were in grade school, but trust me, it helps. You should have an introduction, some key points you want to hit, and a conclusion. You don’t have to use a five paragraph essay, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t use one regularly when writing letters of recommendation. There’s a reason it’s an iconic literary construct.
Make sentences punch. Compare:
Original I am confident that my dedication to meeting new challenges, commitment, willingness to learn, and positive attitude will make me a valued asset to the team.
Punchy My dedication to meeting new challenges, commitment, willingness to learn, and positive attitude are characteristics I can bring to the team.
Original These experiences have fostered my love for building the human-animal bond and as well as recognizing the importance of building positive client relationships, which is something I aim to continue to develop throughout my professional career.
Punchy These experiences have fostered my love for building the human-animal bond and showed me the importance of building positive client relationships.
Original While I am excited by the opportunity to refine my skills and expand my knowledge, I know that it will not be without long hours and hard work and I am motivated by the challenge.
Punchy I know that an internship will often involve long hours and hard work and I am motivated by the challenge.
Use simple language. Compare:
Original As a veterinary student, I saw that anesthesia offered an opportunity to draw upon a capability in the sciences to solve unique and complex problems with facility and compassion.
Simple As a student, I saw that anesthesia offered an opportunity to solve complex problems with compassion and facility.
Original With the advantage of knowing my life’s passion early on, I dedicated my spare time to furthering my knowledge under the tutelage of senior colleagues and board-certified specialists.
Simple Removed entirely. This sentence doesn’t add anything. It’s saying the applicant spends time learning. Yes, you were in vet school, this is self evident. Also, the language is meandering, obscuring the meaning in overly complex phrasing and word choices.
Don’t get confused. When you start an idea in a paragraph, see it through to the end or scrap the entire paragraph. Don’t try to bundle too much into too little space.
Flow. Make sure a reader can follow your train of thought. Do your conclusions flow from your statements? Are there isolated ideas or concepts not tied to the greater narrative? Get rid of them, make sure there is a consistent narrative throughout which reveals who you are.
Kill your darlings. Although oft-misattributed, this concept is important even to the single-page-letter-writer. Do you have a turn of phrase from your vet school application, or a poignant story you think is perfect? Maybe it is, but maybe you can’t see the problems with it. Seek out advice and, when all signs point to it, do the right thing and cut it. My wife edits all my blog posts and regularly cuts segments which I think are just great, but in the end I agree with her.
Second draft = first draft – 10%. Stephen King introduced me to this idea and I have almost never found it to be wrong. It is easier to trim than it is to create good content. Start more expansively and then begin cutting.
When in doubt, make sure to use simple but not simplistic language. Put the thesaurus away. Be sincere and show them who you are. There are innumerable writing guides on the internet and in book form- go check them out. Your letter doesn’t have to be perfect, but the clearer you can be as a writer, the more effective you will be.
This is a specialized version of a post I have about general application letter writing advice, aimed at intern applicants.
It may be impossible to describe a letter written by a highly-ranked internship applicant, but we will apply Justice Stewart’s test– I know it when I see it. Given the wide variability in internship evaluators, and the subjective nature of the process, can you actually write a good letter of intent? The answer is yes. Let’s do it.
Once evaluators have whittled down the list by tossing those applications which are clearly unacceptable, they will more carefully review the remainder. You want to be at the top of this list. While your entire application packet matters, the letter is fully under your control right now. It is one of the few ways you can connect with the evaluator and they can get an idea of who you are as an applicant. You have to make the most of that opportunity.
Your letter should achieve the following goals:
Tell them why you want an internship.
Demonstrate good communication skills.
Demonstrate an understanding of what the internship entails.
Illustrate why the program should choose you over another applicant.
Create some memorable or interesting personal detail for the evaluator to remember.
Avoid all of the mistakes previously described here at The Vetducator
Tell them why you want an internship.
If I have to read another letter that starts, “I want to pursue an internship because I want to continue my education” I will punch my computer. OF COURSE YOU WANT TO CONTINUE YOUR EDUCATION, THAT’S WHY YOU’RE APPLYING FOR AN INTERNSHIP! As a general rule, don’t waste space in your letter writing anything that is self-evident. I understand why you do it- you need to open with SOMETHING, and this describes your motivation in the most simple terms possible. Instead, open with the position to which you are applying and be specific about what you are looking for and what you can offer.
Demonstrate good communication skills.
In addition to avoiding grammar and spelling mistakes, you want to be articulate. I will devote an entire blog post to this topic because it is expansive. In general, be sincere, use simple (but not simplistic) language, use punchy sentences, use appropriate openers and closers, present your thoughts in an organized way, use paragraphs, create narratives, and use good punctuation. You may also demonstrate good communication skills by relating a story of a challenging communication you had with a client, another student, clinician, etc. Everyone knows communication is essential to any job- show them you can do it well.
Demonstrate an understanding of what the internship entails.
Everyone knows you work a lot during an internship, but what is “a lot”? How do you know? Do you just see the interns at the hospital late at night, do you talk to them, do you have a family member or friend who did an internship? What else do interns do? You want to show the evaluators that you know what you are getting in to. They want to know if you have what it takes to be successful at this job.
Illustrate why the program should choose you over another applicant.
This is the real kicker, and consequently almost impossible to pin down. You need to draw from your experiences and who you are and showcase your best characteristics. Don’t just tell them what you did in school. They have your CV, they know WHAT you did. WHY did you do it, WHAT did you learn, HOW does it make you a better person and candidate?
Create some memorable or interesting personal detail for the evaluator to remember.
First, make sure your details are not too quirky- this turns off some evaluators. What you want is when they are reviewing the 40-60 shortlisted candidates and your file comes up, one or two of them will say, “Oh yeah, that’s the one who talked about learning about One Health when visiting a small village where the animals and people all mixed together.” This is not essential, but if you are able to pull it off, it is a slight one up in your favor.
Avoid all of the mistakes previously described here at The Vetducator.
Please? For me?
At the end of the day, you have to express yourself, and no rules or formula can tell you how to do that. Have others review your letter- friends, classmates, mentors. When you get suggestions for changes, though, you don’t have to accept all of them. We can probably take 100 people and generate a ‘typical’ good letter, but it won’t be YOUR letter, it will be a regression to the mean. Now get out there and write!