What is the VMCAS Recommendation and How is it Read?

You would think a letter of recommendation (LOR) is a simple thing.  You ask someone to write it for you when you apply to vet school, they do so, it is read, and that contributes to your evaluation.  All of that is true, and I want to drill down on the details of the letter of recommendation through the VMCAS.  I’ll share how I interpret each of the questions your letter writer will fill out.

  1. Are you a veterinarian? – Although any strong letter of recommendation is valuable, people who have not attended professional school (JD, MD, PharmD, DVM, etc.) have _no idea_ what it’s like.  It is completely different from graduate school (MS, PhD).  At least one of your letter writers should be a veterinarian.  If I see an applicant who does not have at least one LOR from a veterinarian, I question if they know what they are getting into.
  2. Title – I’m not entirely sure why this is here.  So many degrees confer a title of “Dr.” that it doesn’t tell me much.  Maybe if it was written by a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honor this would be relevant.
  3. Name & Phone Number – Basic information.  The phone number is provided in case someone wants to call the LOR writer.  I’ve never been called for a vet school applicant.
  4. Occupation – This is relevant so that the reader knows if the writer knows what they’re talking about.  As a general rule, the applicant wants this to be “Veterinarian” or “Professor” (or Assistant or Associate Professor).  Veterinarians have been through vet school and academics know at least a bit what is expected of a difficult academic program.  “Practice manager” or some other veterinary-adjacent title would also be fine. Other occupations, like “Engineer” would make me wonder why this person is writing a LOR.  
  5. Institution, Practice, or Place of Business – Again, this provides context for the reader about the LOR writer.
  6. Waiver – This indicates if the applicant has indicated they do or do not want to see the LOR.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student select that they DO want to see it.  There is an implication that an LOR writer will be more honest if the applicant can’t see the LOR.  There is also sometimes an assumption by the applicant that, if they select that they DO want to see the LOR, that the LOR writer will take offense and not write as strong a LOR.  I personally give all my students their LOR before I submit it so they can see it anyway.
  7. How long have you known or observed the applicant – This is very important.  I will interpret the information from an LOR writer who has known the applicant for 2 weeks very differently than if they have known them for 2 years.  As a general rule, longer is better because it implies the LOR writer knows the applicant better.
  8. In what capacity have you known the applicant – This is also very important.  If they were a volunteer observer that is different than if they worked directly with me (e.g. as a technician or research student).  Again, ideally the LOR writer has worked directly with the applicant.
  9. Approximate number of candidates I have evaluated in the past five years, for admission to veterinary medical colleges – This is trying to determine if the LOR writer knows what they’re doing.  I don’t find this particularly meaningful.  A new DVM graduate may not have evaluated anyone, but I believe they know more about being a veterinarian and going through vet school than a professor of animal science who has written a dozen LOR in the past 5 years.
  10. Initiative/Originality – Honestly I think an applicant can score anything on this metric and I personally think it would be fine.  Most professionals with whom I work on a regular basis “Need occasional prodding”.
  11. Motivation (for becoming a veterinarian) – If “is uncertain of career goals” is marked, I would flag that applicant as potentially weak.  I think some evaluators would interpret “Simply wants to be a professional (any type)” as a poor indicator, but I personally would not.  I would have classified myself in that category when applying to vet school and here I am 25 years later as a successful veterinary professional.
  12. Intellectual Capacity – If an applicant is not “above average” or higher, I would flag that applicant.  Vet school is intellectually demanding.
  13. Personal and social maturity – I think this is a silly question.  Most applicants are in their early 20s.  I expect most applicants to be “Below average” for this in reality.  I suppose if there is a second-career or later-in-life applicant with “Exceptionally mature” I may consider that a positive.  But people do so much growing in vet school- even older students- I don’t think where you start out matters very much.
  14. Dependability and reliability – This is HUGE for me.  If an applicant isn’t “above average” on this, I would probably rank them very low.  Step #1 is to Show Up.
  15. Emotional stability – Based on my experience teaching veterinary students for 20+ years, I would put a significant majority in the “easily upset” bundle.  Given that is my expectation, I put no weight at all on this question.
  16. Leadership – Again, I don’t think this is very useful.  While I DO believe every veterinarian IS a leader, I also believe that is a skill you acquire throughout vet school.  I suppose if an applicant was given “Outstanding leader” I would look through their application looking for other evidence in support of that (e.g. club officer roles).
  17. Ability to work with others – This MUST be “works well with others” or “excellent interpersonal skills”.  I personally do NOT want to work with anyone who is “occasionally uncooperative” or “lacks interpersonal skills”.  This is a baseline requirement.  If the person is not good to work with, I don’t want them as a student or a future colleague.
  18. Character and integrity – If the applicant is scored “untrustworthy” or “occasionally compromises ethics for personal gain”, I won’t rank them.  Again, being ethical is a baseline requirement.
  19. Verbal skills – If the applicant is scored as “articulate, clear, fluent” I will take note of that as a positive.  Any other answer here is perfectly fine.  Although communication is absolutely essential to being a competent professional, I expect students to learn a lot of that during vet school.  They don’t need to come in with those skills.
  20. Acceptance of feedback and instruction – Even though having a Growth Mindset is essential to developing as a professional, I think I’m OK with “sometimes resistant to feedback” or better.  Receiving feedback is HARD.  I respect that.  Hopefully the student will grow during vet school.  “Resistant to constructive feedback” is a pretty serious negative mark in my book.
  21. Ability to handle animals – I 100% don’t care.  I’ll teach you this during school.
  22. Applicant’s overall potential – I think this question probably lends itself to grade inflation so is meaningless to me.  I expect most evaluators will put very high marks for this regardless of the applicant’s actual performance because, in America, we continue to creep to giving better and better grades regardless of performance.  I think most LOR writers think they have to give a top mark to an applicant for them to even be considered, so they do.
  23. Comments – Far and away the most important section of the LOR, and the system TELLS the letter writer that in the instructions.  This is one reason why, as an applicant, you prefer LOR writers who have written letters before, understand academia, and know what to say.  As an evaluator, this is by far the most important section because it provides a narrative account of the applicant.  It provides the most accurate picture of them.

There you have it, a lot of sections and considerations for a LOR writer.  As an applicant, there’s not a lot you can do to affect what is entered for any of these except, of course, to follow my advice in the How to Be Successful series.  Everything you need to EARN a great LOR can be found there.

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