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. Lets 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.