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Office of Pre-Health Advising

Tips for Future Professionals

Academia Is a Culture

Academia (colleges and professional schools), is its own culture, with its own expectations and rules.

Think, for a moment, about New York culture. Not the opera and museums, but just the unspoken rules we operate by every day. If a bunch of people each want to speak to an agent at a subway booth, you line up, right? But when it comes time to get on the train, you don't line up, you all just work your way in as a big crowd. At a food cart, you line up; at a deli, you might take a number. You know these things, because you've done them and seen them a lot. Someone who ignores these unwritten rules is either rude, or not from around here.

If you're the first in your family to go to college in the US, then you're like someone who has just moved to New York. In addition to having to do whatever you came here for, you'll want to learn how the "locals" do things, so that you don't seem rude. This page includes a few examples.

Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Writing letters of recommendation is part of what full-time professors expect to do; they think of it as part of their professional responsibility. But it's still always a choice on their part; they might decline if, for example, they think they couldn't write a positive letter for a given student, or if they happen to be very busy with other things. For some of the other people you will ask letters of recommendation of, writing a letter for you is a special mark of respect, since they need to spend extra time to do it. Additionally, while you're learning academia, some of the people you are asking letters from may be doing the same, and may be unsure how best to write the letter.

Ideally, you should make your preliminary request to a potential letter-writer well before you think you'll need the letter(e.g., "I'm planning to apply to med school next year, and was hoping you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation.") That makes it easier for the person to say no without feeling that they're leaving you in a bad spot. And you do want them to be able to say no! You don't want a letter written by someone who feels they were forced in to it.

When you're ready for the letter, try to assemble a list of all the places it will need to go, along with how the person will submit it (e.g. hard copy, email, application service) and due dates. If, for example, you are applying to a dozen different summer programs, it's much easier on the letter writer if she knows the full list in advance, rather than it coming in dribs and drabs. If you have to add a recipient or two later, or if you decide you don't need a few of the letters, just let your letter-writer know. Ideally, provide this list you your letter-writer at least a month in advance of the first deadline.

It's OK to politely check once in a while, as deadlines approach, if your letter-writer has sent the letters on your behalf.

Inexperienced letter-writers may ask for guidance as to what to write. You can, for example, send them to the AAMC advice to letter-writers. You can also provide them copies of your personal statement, resume, etc. to help them understand the context better. You should not, however, agree to look at a draft of the letter or write it yourself. If a letter-writer wants to show you what they've written, explain that letters are suppoed to be confidential and that you trust them to be fair in saying what they know about you. If they send you a copy of the letter without your asking, delete it without reading and explain to them about confidentiality.

Confidentiality of Letters of Recommendation

Almost all programs and professional schools prefer letters of recommendation that are confidential, that is, that the applicant has not seen. It should go without saying that the letters should also be authentic, i.e., written by the person who is identified as the letter-writer.

Different programs use different methods to ensure confidentiality and authenticity. Some examples:

  • Some programs use online letter services. Generally, you provide the program the email address of your letter-writer, who then receives a link directly from the program. The letter-writer then uploads the letter directly to the link.
  • Some programs ask for letters to be emailed directly to them by the letter-writer.
  • Some programs want the letter to be printed on letterhead, and then signed by the letter-writer. These programs might accept a scanned pdf, or they might ask for the physical letter be mailed to them in a sealed envelope, with the letter-writer signing across the seal as evidence that you never opened it.
  • It's also sometimes the case that letters can be sent to the pre-health advisor, who then delivers them to the program via one of the above methods.

As explained in the previous section, you should never agree to look at a draft of a letter, even if a letter-writer asks you to. Even if there's a particular program that doesn't care about confidentiality, you want your writer to be able to reuse the letter for programs that do prefer confidential letters.

Cancelling Appointments

If you take a number at the deli or Motor Vehicles, and then don't stick around for your turn, no one cares. But it's not the same when you schedule an appointment with a faculty member, pre-health advisor, or medical school. By scheduling that appointment, you're reserving a spot that someone else could have used. If you can't make it to an appointment, always let the person know as far in advance as you can.

Even if, for example, you are taking a test and it is going on for a lot longer than you expected, ask the proctor if you can quickly email or phone the person you have the appointment with to tell them that you'll be late. The proctor might or might not allow it, but it's worth trying.