The VIRMP Standard Letter of Recommendation

Applying for an internship or residency can be stressful.  Ideally, you made decisions throughout vet school to improve your chances, and hopefully you have followed the suggestions I have on how to be successful.  You have asked for letters of recommendation, which are probably the most important part of your application packet.  But what do those letters SAY, and what does the content MEAN?

The standard letter of reference (SLOR) can be found at the VIRMP website, so there’s no mystery as to what’s on it.  Let’s break down each section.  I have truncated some of the questions for brevity’s sake.

  1. Letter writer’s qualifications
    1. This is not one of the questions asked, but when the SLOR generates, this is at the top of the form.  It includes the letter writer’s institution, degrees, and board certifications.  I’ve written before about the people from whom you want to get letters of recommendation, and this is where evaluators see that information.
  2. How long have you known or observed the applicant?
    1. As an evaluator, this is important.  Someone who worked with the applicant for 2 weeks while on a clinical rotation will know this person in a very different way than someone who has directly mentored them for 2 years.  That’s not to say a letter from someone with whom you have spent 2 weeks on clinics is not valuable- it is.  This just puts the relationship into context for the evaluator.
  3. Are you currently working with the applicant?
    1. Ideally, you get letters of reference from the position you currently occupy.  If you had a strong mentoring relationship with a clinician from a previous institution, you may include them, but generally programs want to know about what kind of clinician you are now rather than in the past.
  4. In what capacity have you known the applicant?
    1. Obviously, for a clinical training program, the evaluator wants to know the letter writer has worked with them in a clinical setting.  Other contact, such as in the classroom and as a mentor, can help frame the context of the letter (e.g. how well the letter writer knows the applicant).
  5. Hypothetically, if your institution permitted internal hiring, how likely would you be to offer a position to this applicant?
    1. This is a 7-level Likert scale.  I suspect a score any less than a 6 or 7 would remove you from consideration as an applicant.  If the letter writer wouldn’t want to work with you, why would I?  There is a 50-word free-text entry.  I typically write something like, “Amazing applicant, would love to have them stay” if I feel that way.
  6. In your opinion, how likely do you think this applicant is to successfully complete an internship program if the applicant matches?  For residency applicants, I believe this is the same as “In your opinion, how likely do you think this applicant is to obtain board certification in her/his primary specialty area?”
    1. Again, a 7-level Likert scale.  A 6 is suspect; anything lower I believe would result in you not being ranked.  Programs hate taking people who don’t complete them.
  7. How would you evaluate the work ethic of this applicant?
    1. Another 7-level Likert.  I think a 5 or higher would probably still get you considered, although obviously a 7 is what you want a letter writer to put.  Nobody wants to work with someone who doesn’t have a strong work ethic.
  8. How would you evaluate the difficulty of training the applicant?
    1. As before, I think a 5 or higher would be acceptable here.  I suspect most people writing a strong letter of recommendation would enter 7.
  9. Commentary on questions 5-7:
    1. I expect most letter writers will put ‘7’ down the line.  This section does not distinguish you in any positive way from any other applicant.  This is the bare minimum to be reasonably competitive.  Any mark less than a 7 will probably be noted by evaluators.  Depending on the applicant pool, they may only evaluate applicants with 7 in each of these categories.  This section is more about weeding out applicants than identifying good ones.
  10. Please rate the applicant on each of the following attributes.  Then there are sections on knowledge and clinical skills, stress and time management, interpersonal skills, and personal characteristics.  For residents, research and teaching skills are added to the list.
    1. I expect any competitive applicant to be at a 4 or above in all of these categories.  Some letter writers will put ‘7’ all the way down, which is really not helpful for evaluators (and unlikely to be true).  As an evaluator, I look at the scores below a 4.  If it’s what I consider to be very important to me (e.g. any of the interpersonal skills), I will look very critically at the rest of their application and probably not consider them further if we have a strong applicant pool.
  11. Please use the text box below to elaborate on any ratings you made.
    1. This is probably the most important part of the SLOR, and the VIRMP tells you that in the directions: “Based on feedback from the SLOR reader survey, the absence of comments is interpreted as a negative evaluation of the candidate.”
    2. In my experience, non-US and non-academic letter writers often write very little in this section, which definitely negatively affects the candidates.
    3. Here is where I look for all the things I want a letter of recommendation to say.  Are they humbleAre they easy to work with?  Are they receptive to learning?  As I’ve said before, I can teach a student if they are reasonably intelligent and easy to work with.  But I cannot change their personality if they are difficult to work with.
  12. If interested, would you like to be contacted by programs for additional information or clarification regarding this candidate’s suitability for a position?
    1. I have no idea why this is here.  Of course “yes” is always selected.  I’ve never been directly contacted about someone for whom I wrote a letter for an internship.  For a residency, we all just call and chat with each other anyways.
  13. Residency-specific question: Please rate the applicant’s competency in her/his primary specialty area of interest:
    1. I think this is a dumb question.  I don’t expect resident applicants to be competent in my discipline; I WILL TRAIN THEM TO DO THAT.
  14. Residency-specific question: In your opinion, what is this applicant’s level of interest in research?
    1. Again, I think this is a dumb question.  I don’t really care what their interest level is, they HAVE to do a project.  They know that going in.  I suppose some people may want to confirm that the applicant is at least a little interested in research.  But I’ve known dozens of residents who don’t like research, do a project to fulfill the residency requirements, get board certified, and go on to be perfectly competent clinicians.

Those are the elements of the SLOR and my personal take on them.  What do you think is the most important part of the SLOR?

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