Tag Archives: recommendations

Internship Letters of Recommendation Flowchart

Last week we did a whole series on letters of recommendation. One of the most complex is for those applying for internships. Therefore, I created a (relatively simple) flowchart to help you decide what letters of recommendation you should get for internship applications.  

Core disciplines are internal medicine, surgery, and emergency/critical care.

Ancillary disciplines are cardiology, neurology, oncology, anesthesiology, and radiology.  

Peripheral disciplines are anyone outside your species focus (e.g. you are applying for a large animal rotating internship and the letter-writer is a small animal internist), ophthalmology, dermatology, pathology, behavior, theriogenology, and ABVP specialties.

The Vetducator - internship letters of recommendation flowchart.
Click for larger image.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation for a Faculty Position

The Vetducator - letters of recommendation series image.

Aim for zero.  Seriously. The faculty selection process is largely based on the interview.  All of your written materials are designed with only one goal: to get you an interview.  Once you interview, all of your written materials will be of minimal value, unless those materials ‘ding’ you.  Therefore, your strategy is simple: aim for zero.

Consider what those recruiting a faculty member want out of a candidate.  They want someone personable and low maintenance. No department chair wants to recruit someone who is going to be a pain in their side.  Your letters, therefore, should primarily speak to your collegiality. Therefore, you can get letters from three sources: supervisors, colleagues, and mentees.

Supervisors.  See the above description of what a department head is looking for.  If your current head can write that you are low maintenance and highly productive, that makes it easy to offer you an interview.  If you are finishing your residency, obtain at least one letter from a faculty mentor, and preferably two.

Colleagues.  This could be someone in your discipline and someone outside your discipline.  If possible, a letter from each of these is ideal. It’s important to demonstrate that you can get on with others in your discipline as well as those outside of your discipline.  You should definitely have at least one and preferably two letters from colleagues.

Mentees. These are preferably residents who have now gone on to bigger and better things.  If you are an administrator, they may be faculty you have supervised. In general it is better to solicit letters from people with whom you no longer work- that way there is no concern of inappropriate pressure applied to them.  If you trained a resident, they loved you, and they are out in the world as a specialist, they have no pressure to write you a good letter except that they loved working with you. If you are a resident, a more junior resident or a former intern who liked working with you may be good.  This category is not a requirement and these letters of recommendation should be considered additional to the core letters.

I strongly advise you get at least one letter from a supervisor and one letter from a colleague.  You need people who will speak to your collegiality and productivity/work ethic. Ask potential writers if they are willing to write a good letter, send them the position description, and give them plenty of notice/time to put a letter together.  Remember your goal: get an interview.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation for a Residency

The Vetducator - letters of recommendation series image.

The letters of recommendation for a residency are key.  These people will hopefully not only write you a letter but advocate for you in the residency selection process.  Fortunately, the strategy for this letter is simpler than the strategy for letters of recommendation for an internship.  I really have only two guidelines:

1) All of your letters should be from someone in the specialty to which you are applying unless it violates (2).

2) At least one of your letters MUST be from where you are currently working.  If you are doing an internship, all of your letters can’t be from your student days.  If you are doing a specialty internship, all of your letters can’t be from your student or rotating intern days.

My recommendation is therefore as follows:

At least 1 letter from a specialist in the field at your current institution.  The more the better.

If you do not have a specialist in your field at your current institution, get a recommendation from someone in a core discipline (internal medicine, surgery, emergency/critical care).

The balance of letters can be from specialists not at your current institution.

The reason you need a letter of recommendation from someone at your current institution, even if they are not in your specialty, is to demonstrate that you are not a monster.  If I were to read an application from someone from a private practice internship- which did not have an anesthesiologist- and they had 4 letters of recommendation from anesthesiologists from where they went to school, I would wonder, “Did they peak in vet school?  Is there NO ONE working with them now who can vouch for their medical competence? Anesthesia includes knowledge of information from all kinds of disciplines- if they can’t do basic medicine, will they be a competent anesthesiologist?”

In general, more letters from people in your specialty is good.  If you have your choice of specialists, those more well-known or connected may be slightly preferable.  But a great letter from just any surgeon is probably better than an OK letter from a renowned surgeon. If at all possible, those writing for you should already be boarded and have a lot of experience writing letters of recommendation. If this is not possible, unboarded people in your specialty will have to do.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation for an Internship

The Vetducator - letters of recommendation series image.

You want to get a great internship and you need letters of recommendation.  Hopefully, you have followed the advice already given to let potential letter writers know of your interest and asked them ahead of time.  In addition to strategizing your clinic rotation selection, you need to strategize who should write you letters of recommendation. First, let’s look at some caution areas.

1) The vet you have worked for since high school.  Most non-academic veterinarians do not know how to write a good letter of recommendation.  I have read dozens of letters from these professionals and, though they are very positive, they are not very helpful to me as an evaluator.

2) The non-veterinary boss.  Unless you worked in a veterinary research lab in vet school or undergrad, any paid employer is unlikely to know enough about clinical veterinary medicine to write you a compelling letter of recommendation.

3) Only letters from outside your institution.  If I get an application from a student from the South Harmon Institute of Technology and NONE of their letters are from faculty at South Harmon, I get instantly suspicious.  Is this applicant difficult to work with, so those at their home institution would not write a good letter for them? You should have at least half of your letters from faculty at your home institution.

4) Letters from the non-clinical field.  If you are applying for a clinical internship, you need people who can speak to your clinical acumen.  If you did a rotation in microbiology, that may be interesting, but may not bear on your abilities as a clinician.  If you did research with someone whom you did not work with on clinics, that also falls into this group. If you can get your letters without resorting to one from this domain, that would be better.

Now that we have gotten the problem areas out of the way, whom SHOULD you ask?

1) Core clinical discipline faculty.  This is surgery, internal medicine, and emergency/critical care.  If you don’t have a stellar performance in at least one of those disciplines, you probably won’t make a very good intern.  If you can get letters only from core clinical discipline faculty, great.

2) Ancillary clinical discipline faculty.  This is cardiology, neurology, anesthesiology, oncology, and radiology.  These disciplines are clinically oriented and interface with many other disciplines.  You may have 1-2 letters from this group in total.

3) Peripheral clinical discipline faculty.  This is anyone outside your species focus (e.g. you are applying for a large animal rotating internship and the letter-writer is a small animal internist), ophthalmology, dermatology, pathology, behavior, theriogenology, and ABVP specialties (unless you are applying to an internship in one, such as shelter or exotic animal).  You may have 1 letter from this group in total.

You have 3 letters of recommendation at a minimum and up to 4.  Therefore, my recommendations are thus:

2+ letters from core disciplines

+/- 1 letter from an ancillary discipline

+/- 1 letter from a peripheral clinical discipline OR outside your home institution

If you cannot find people to write you good letters based on this recommendation, you may ‘downgrade’ each category.  Realize that, if you only have letters of reference from peripheral clinical discipline faculty, your application is likely to be looked at with substantial skepticism.  The intern year is a time to hone your core clinical skills. The program evaluators want to make sure you have at least some basis in those core domains before accepting you into their program.  Make sure your recommendation writers demonstrate your core medical knowledge.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation as an Undergrad

The Vetducator - Letters of recommendation series image.

So you’re planning to apply to vet school and need letters of recommendation.  These should be easy to ask for, but who to ask? There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for this, so let’s look at the options.

1) A vet with whom you have worked.  This is probably at a private practice clinic in your hometown where you had spent time volunteering or working.  This is a solid choice. This person knows veterinary medicine and hopefully knows you. The only drawback is they are probably not experienced at writing letters of recommendation, so they may not know the ‘right’ things to write.

2) A non-vet college professor.  This is probably in a higher-level course with a smaller class size so you got to know the professor.  These experiences can range widely- I have had students I barely knew from a 1-credit self-defense class to students with whom I have worked closely on a research project for two years ask me for letters.  The more connection you have with the professor, the better. The less connection you have, the more generic the letter will be, along the lines of, “I didn’t notice this student being bad. They got a fine grade.  They are probably not a monster.” You want a personal letter which can speak to your strengths. Plan accordingly.

3) A vet college professor.  This is like winning the jackpot and, unless you are very strategic, is more likely to happen by chance than intention.  If a class you take is taught by a veterinarian AND the class is a small one where the professor knows your name, this is the best case scenario. This person knows the industry and knows you and knows what selection committees look for, therefore can write a highly effective letter.

4) Non-veterinary bosses.  If you have worked as a veterinary technician or in some skilled, paid employment for anything more than a year, these can be helpful.  If you served ice cream at Baskin Robbins for a summer, probably not very helpful to get a letter from your boss.

5) Anyone else.  This includes friends who are professionals, non-academic non-veterinary mentors, and presidents of organizations of which you are a part.  In general these are not particularly valuable, and should only serve as a last resort.

You can usually submit at least 3 letters of recommendation for vet school.  Opinions may differ, but I generally recommend you have at least one veterinarian and at least one college professor who knows you reasonably well.  You want people who can speak to your professional preparedness and fit for the job and can speak to your academic competence and dedication. If possible, you want people who have experience writing good letters of recommendation. This can be hard to determine, but you may be able to ask them, especially the vets with whom you have worked, since their writing skill can vary widely.  What letters of recommendation are you unsure about soliciting?

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!