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Take Control of your Letters of Recommendation (featured in SDN / >4200 views)

by Muhammed Ziauddin


As you are applying to medical or dental schools this year, which part of the process you feel that you have almost no control over? For most people, it will be the letters of recommendation because they don’t have direct control over it. However, from my experience, I learned that you can control more than 80% of what your recommenders write in your LORs. Your recommenders only control less than 20% of the letter, which include a) writing the letter on time and b) submitting it on time. Even you can indirectly control these 20%. 

Let me share how!

During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I asked my physics professor to give me a recommendation for a study abroad program. He excitedly agreed.

Right after the meeting, I emailed him my resume (1-page, mostly describing my extra curricular activities), the program information, and any instruction he needed to know to write the letter. 
Fortunately, I did not waive my right to view the recommendation, so I saw what he wrote:

“Muhammed is extremely intelligent, motivated and hard working. He made a huge improvement in my class (from B- in physics I to an A in Physics II). I learned this by talking to his Physics I professor.”

[He realized my positive sides, but did not give the detailed picture of how I worked hard in Physics II.]

Then, he wrote about my weaknesses:
“Muhammed does not know how to communicate his ideas well. His speech is slurry and it’s really hard to understand when he talks. Although I am aware that he is an immigrant and English is his second language, I am not sure if he talks the same way in his native language. He’s also a bit scatter brained, conversations can turn sideways when someone is talking to him.”

[He noticed all my character flaws and found a perfect media to publish these. Awesome!]

and finally he wrote:
“He is very driven to succeed and I highly recommended him for the program”

You can easily guess what happened next. I got rejected from the program. But the worst thing was that I really respected him and believed that he would write me a strong recommendation for the program. At that moment it was extremely demoralizing to find out what my favorite professor thought of me. 

But that was a great learning experience:

a) My professor totally overlooked my hard work in the class. He only mentioned that I got an A, but he did not mention the detailed story, which would have helped the program reviewers to understand me better. Although I respect his BRUTAL HONESTY, he could have done me a great favor if a) he had declined to write me a recommendation letter and b) if he gave those feedbacks when I was taking the class with him so that I could improve.

b) Also I realized that I should be in control of my application process. If I am the person putting in the hard work to apply for medical/dental school, why should my professor or admission committee decide my fate of getting accepted to those schools. I should be in control of the system and I got to be SO GOOD that they cannot ignore me. 

Using those lessons, I built a system for asking people to write me recommendation letters for my dental school applications. I got into all the dental schools I interviewed at (UPenn, UPitt, UCSF, UMDNJ and NYU). I am going to share my system in this thread. 

During March of my Junior year, I reached out to professors and supervisors with whom I worked one or two years ago. I let them know that I am applying to dental school and set up appointments with them if they were interested to write me LORs. Knowing that they are busy, I sent them google calendar invites at least 2 weeks ahead of time.

I had a list of seven recommenders, who I believed knew me well. I set up face-to-face meetings with all of them (some of them were coffee chats at Starbucks). It allowed me catch up with them as well as talk about my future goals. All my recommenders were VERY excited for me. (If any of them showed lack of enthusiasm, I knew better not to ask them for LORs). 

At the end of those meetings, I always asked them if I could help them in any ways. This is great way to add value to their professional or personal lives. You always want to give before you ask for something. 

Within 1 or 2 days after meeting them in person, I followed up with them and sent them these following documents via email

a) Three solid reasons for attending dental school. I did not send my personal statement because it was not ready yet and I thought three reasons were enough for them to write the letters.

In each email, I tried to connect with them emotionally. For instance, to my research principal investigator, I wrote: “Similar to the lives of the researchers, dentists are in control of their own schedules. Such flexibility of lifestyle design attracts me to this profession.” On the other hand, to my sculpture instructor I wrote: “Quite similar to an artist, dentists dedicate their lives to beautify people’s teeth so that they can smile confidently.”

b) I sent a list of my extra-curricular activities, explaining WHY I participated in them and how were those activities meaningful to me. I listed all relevant accomplishments as well. I also told them about my summer plans. In addition to taking the DAT over the summer, I was going to study happiness and success among immigrant communities in Philadelphia. 
[If you are doing something exciting, make sure you tell the recommenders. Give them stories to tell in the letter]

c) Finally, I sent my recommenders all the forms and DETAILED instructions so that they know exactly where to submit those letters. I also sent them an envelop that had my pre-health advisors’ office address (with postage). It made their lives much easier because some of them were writing 10-15 LORs.

[Your recommenders are busy, so do everything to ease their lives. In case they have to send the LOR via email or upload on a webpage, make sure you mention that in a follow up email] 

I asked for recommendations early April, which gave my recommenders ~6 weeks to write and submit. Some professors were busy, so I sent them a friendly email reminding the deadline. For example: 

Dear Professor XXX

I have submitted my resume and recommendation request form earlier this month. Please let me know if you received it. In case you did not get it, I can resend the materials. Health Professional Advisory Board wants to have all the letters in by May 15thand my other recommenders plan to hand the letters in by that dayHowever, you can take the time to write it and submit it by May 20th (Deadline).

I used a slight persuasion technique to get them to write the letter WAY before the application opened up (mid June for AADSAS). The results were awesome because I got into all of my top choices.

Final thoughts: Make sure you waive your right to view the recommendation (i.e. you are not going to see the recommendations on file). It gives more weight to the recommendation letter. And In case you receive a recommendation that I received from my physics professor, you won’t be demoralized. 

This is my system of asking for letters of recommendation. It worked for me and I am sure it will work for you as well.

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