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Letters of Evaluation - What the Student Should Know

In today's tight competition the chances are that you are only one of many candidates with test scores and grades that qualify you for admission to professional school or for scholarships. It may be only by letters of evaluation that you can document the special qualities which differentiate you from other applicants.

Letters of evaluation provide three things:

Producing good letters of evaluation is a job for both the applicant and the letter writer. Before you decide who should write your letters of evaluation, you must decide what it is that you would like to have written about you. Good letters do not just happen, they are generally the result of a plan, and you are the planner.

Map out a strategy which will show just what you would like said about you. Start by identifying the information, evaluation and characterization which are likely to be of particular importance to your potential professional school or scholarship funding agency. These differ, of course, depending on the purpose of the application. Study carefully the relevant fellowship brochure or school catalogue and make a list of what you think the criteria of selection will be. The forms supplied with your application can help you. Group these criteria under three headings:

Then try and identify more specifically the facts and evaluations about you which should appear in your letters of evaluation:

The Importance of Networking

With the high premium set on grades, some students forget that their goal in school is to learn. If you miss any part of a test, you should attend the professor's next office hour so you can learn the material you missed on the test. Take this opportunity, also, to get to know your professors. However, you don't need to miss something on a test to visit a professor. As with any teacher, professors want to know what you are getting out of their class and usually enjoy talking about broader implications of the material. In addition, most students find learning about the professor's research an enriching experience. Don't stop visiting professors because you are no longer in their classes. Visit their offices, let them know how the material they taught helped you with subsequent classes, and tell them of your progress toward your chosen career. You may wish to do a special research study with a professor, but talk with other students in the laboratory about their impressions of the study and its environment before jumping into an unknown research project.

How to Select a Writer of a Letter

Your strategy helps identify the kind of persons you wish to write your letters. Too many students simply ask themselves, "Whom do I know who knows me well enough to write a letter?" and then proceed to request a letter from the person whose name pops into their head. A "perfect" person to write a letter on your behalf would be someone who:

Generally no such person exists. We compromise in our selection, picking some strengths over others as more important. Fortunately, you can generally chose more than one author and can select several who know you in different contexts and whose letters will fulfill different strategic needs (teachers, employers, administrators, etc.).

In addition to letters from professors, you should also solicit for your file brief letters on your leadership within your school or community or jobs in health-related fields (paid or volunteer) you have held. This includes committee work and any other extracurricular activity. By accumulating these short letters each year, you can better document your career at SDSU and greatly assist the Preprofessional Health Advisor in preparation of letters for fellowships or professional school. If you determine that you do not want to apply to professional school immediately upon graduation, it becomes all the more important to have a substantial file.

How to Ask Someone to Write a Letter

First, ask early. Do not delay too long in making your decision about which person you will ask to write a letter. Most letter writers are busy people and need as much time as possible to schedule writing a letter for you.

You may be in the dark as to the writing skills of someone, but you cannot afford to be in the dark concerning their judgment of you. The chance that the letter will not be favorable is a chance you cannot afford to take and the best way to find out how you stand with the prospective letter writer is to ask. A possible approach might be:

"Professor Jones, I am applying for an American Heart Association Fellowship. Do you feel that I would be a strong candidate?" or "Do you feel you could recommend me favorably for admission to Stanford Medical School?" If there is any hesitation, thank the person graciously, but do not pursue it further. It is far better for the person to decline honestly than to write a letter of faint praise that could be more damaging than no letter at all.

Helping the Letter Writer

First, you should make it clear what you are applying for. If it is a particular fellowship or graduate school, you should provide the writer with a description of the program or the fellowship, together with any statement you are submitting setting forth the reasons for applying or describing the project you intend to pursue. This helps assure that the letter will be consistent with your own application. The second thing you should give the writer is a reminder about how you know each other and a checklist of facts or incidents in your relationship which will refresh her/his memory of you and provide grist for the letter. Letters with specific examples of your strong points are much more persuasive than the letters which merely abound in adjectives. Your letter writers are apt to have sound conclusions about your abilities and characteristics but it is hard for them to recall the precise incidents which lead to those conclusions, reference to which would strengthen their letter of recommendation. You can help:

You must remember that many of your letter writers have known hundreds of students and will be grateful for any jog to their memory that will ease their letter writing task.

Follow-Through

For letters to be sent with your committee packet, you should provide the writer with a request form available in the Preprofessional Health Advising Office. This provides a confidentiality waiver and some tips on how to write a letter for someone applying to a health professions school. You should give the writer stamped envelopes properly addressed to the preprofessional health advising office and ask them to seal the letter and sign across the seal. Make sure that the deadline for sending the letter is understood. It is ultimately YOUR responsibility to see that the letter is written and reaches its destination. The Preprofessional Health Advising Office keeps a card for each student and lists the name of each writer as letters are received.

Notify Letter Writers of Outcome

It is courteous to notify those who write letters on your behalf of the outcome of your application, whether favorable or not. This provides an occasion for again expressing your thanks and implies a continuing relationship--one which may permit you to ask for help again in the future.

Your File on Yourself

It will help you greatly in getting good letters of evaluation if you have established and maintained a file on yourself. It is in this file that you put copies of every application that you have previously submitted, copies of your transcripts, previous letter of evaluation strategies, lists of potential letter writers, etc. With this material in hand, half the job of arranging the next good set of letters is already accomplished.