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. Probably not valuable.

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.

3 comments on “Choosing Letters of Recommendation for an Internship

  1. -

    It makes sense to get more recommendation letters about your core disciplines so that they know you are good at that. My brother is trying hard to become a vet this year and he needs to find an internship. This article has a lot of useful information that should be able to help him get an internship over someone else.

  2. -

    Great blog with really helpful points! What is your advice to a senior veterinary student on rotations leading up to asking a vet to write a LOR?
    Specifically, what can I do (besides aim for zero but also be stellar) during my one week rotation on a core discipline to prove my competence to a clinician and receive a decent LOR?

    • - Post author

      Thanks for reading! Definitely let the clinician know on the first day that you are interested in an internship, so they can evaluate your performance in light of that. If you feel you did well and interacted well with this clinician, the week after the rotation is over, reach out and ask if they would be willing to write a good letter of reference for you. I prefer to do this in person, but email is acceptable.
      As far as what to do during the rotation, I think the tips on are best. Otherwise, study when you get home so you are knowledgeable during rounds and case discussions. Good luck!

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