So you want a recommendation letter…

‘Tis the season for writing recommendation letters for medical and dental school applicants. Many of these requests are from undergraduates who took my large (nearly 100 student) Evolution course. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to interview all of the students individually, and I usually only get to know a handful of students well enough to write a proper letter. I typically reply to a request for a letter with a request for more information. I ask the students for the following:

(1) What is your overall GPA?
(2) Why do you want to go to Dental/Med School?
(3) Where did you grow up?
(4) What were the topics of your assignments in my class? 
(5) What was your final grade (numerical) in the class?
(6) Why did you choose LSU?
(7) What volunteer opportunities have you taken advantage of as an undergrad?
(8) Do you have research/internship experience?
(9) Please send along a CV/resume if you have one.
(10) Please provide any additional information you think would help me write your letter…

Once I get the answers to those 10 questions/inquiries I usually have plenty of information to write a more personal and useful recommendation.  Question 1, overall GPA, usually gives me a clue what the chances are that this student will actually get into medical or dental school. Q2, tells me why they want to go to one of these schools – if they don’t have a good answer to why they want to be a doctor - they are unlikely to become one. Questions 3-6 basically tell me (a) are they truthful (because I already know their grades and assignment scores) and (b) their level of ambition and undergrad background. Question 7 and 8 tell me if they are just trying to do well in classes or if they actually tried to accomplish something outside of class. Why would you come to an R1 (Research 1) university and not try to work in one of your professor’s labs? If you haven’t done any research or volunteer work then all you have are your grades, and that isn’t enough. Those students with lots of volunteer hours or research experience have taken advantage of their time as a student and are the most likely to succeed. Q9 and Q10 help me round out the letter and make it as personal as possible.
            Not only do these questions make me write the best letter possible for the students, it also helps me write the letter more easily. Rather than struggling to remember how the student stood out in my class, I can have more direct answers that tell me what kind of person they are and how they compare to my other students (because they all answered the same questions). Also with these answers I can plug in big chunks of text into a letter already formatted for medical and dental school applications. Most professors are modifying the same letter over and over again (we often get dozens of requests a year), at least with these questions I can still make my “standard" letter pretty specific to the individual student.