A letter of recommendation (LOR) is one of the cornerstones of your application to vet school. They are used to demonstrate to the selection committee that you know what you are getting into and have the fortitude to succeed. At least one of your LORs should come from a veterinarian. They have been through vet school, they know what it takes, and they understand the field. But what do you do about letter writers who are not veterinarians? They may need some guidance to write you a really good LOR.
The LOR is different depending on the culture. In the United States, the LORs we write and receive are much longer than overseas. The LORs in veterinary medicine are different from those in human medicine. As a result, you cannot simply trust that a letter writer knows what is needed and appropriate to say in an LOR for vet school.
Far and away the most important positive part of an LOR is the free-text portion. There are standard questions which are answered, but most of these merely establish the applicant as acceptable or not acceptable. Where the LOR can really help the applicant stand out from the crowd is in the free-text portion.
That piece of information right there is key. Many LOR writers don’t spend much time on the free-text portion at all. They NEED to. Most American evaluators interpret very little written in the free-text portion as “This writer doesn’t know the applicant”, “This writer has nothing good to say about the applicant”, or “This writer doesn’t know the cultural norms of veterinary medicine.” Any of those are bad news for the applicant.
So, the first thing you need to impress on your LOR writers is that they need to complete the free-text portion, and not write only 3-4 lines. It doesn’t need to be a textbook, but most free-text portions I write are a short 5-paragraph essay. This demonstrates that I know the applicant well enough to comment on their qualities in depth AND put those qualities into context for the position to which they are applying.
I realize it can already be intimidating to ask someone to write you a LOR. How do you tell them what to write? After you have secured their agreement to write you a GOOD LOR, you can send them them an email along the lines of:
“Thank you again for agreeing to write me a LOR for veterinary school! I’m not sure how many of these you have done. The LOR for vet school is very particular. The evaluators really want to see that you know me as a person and can ‘vouch’ for my competence and likelihood to succeed. Evaluators expect that LOR writers put in a detailed and fair description of the applicant in the “Comments” section at the end of the form. If you can make sure to address a few qualities that you think make me a particularly good applicant, and your experience seeing those qualities, that would be tremendously helpful. Attached is an example of an LOR written for vet school. Please let me know if you have any questions!”
If you are more comfortable having this discussion in person, that also works just fine. You could even discuss it during the same conversation where you ask for a LOR. “Thank you for agreeing to write for me! I’ve been told that vet schools are very particular about what they want to see in an LOR. Can I send you an example for some inspiration?”
I realize this may be more forward than some people are comfortable being. Some may believe they will offend the LOR writer. I don’t think that’s the case. Anyone willing to write you a GOOD letter WANTS you to succeed. They should be delighted to get any guidance to help them write a LOR which would help you be successful. I have written a handful of LOR for medical school and I know I would have appreciated more details about what they are looking for or even an example.
You can’t expect everyone to know what veterinary medicine cultural standards are, so you need to help them out. Be respectful and polite and approach it with an attitude of helpfulness. I think this will improve the qualities of LORs I read and improve YOUR chances of getting an interview and acceptance.