12 Easy Steps to an Amazing Letter of Recommendation from your Professor

Do you need to obtain a letter of recommendation from a veterinary school professor? Or maybe you’re just applying to schools now and need the support of one of your undergrad faculty members in your application?

I’ve been sharing the wealth on a bunch of unique opportunities for vet students and others to gain the experience and win the funding necessary to pursue their veterinary goals. A key element of any successful application is the presence of quality references.

Here are 12 easy steps to obtain a killer letter of recommendation that will almost guarantee your selection for that next exciting opportunity. They worked for me, and they can work for you, too.

1. Take a deep breath and relax. This task is very attainable and you are going to be fine. You have already gotten into college and/or veterinary school, so we know you have all the tools you will need.

2. Be confident. You are going to be way ahead of your peers simply by reading this post and putting it into practice. Most applicants never develop a clear strategy for obtaining their references.

3. Select your targets. The ideal reference is a professor who meets at least one and preferably several of these conditions:

  • You’ve taken a class with him or her (and done well in it!)
  • You’ve done some type of research or work for him or her (and impressed them!)
  • You respect and look up to him or her as a person and a professional (and assume the feeling is mutual)
  • He or she is well-known and respected within the veterinary field (or even better, the specific area of the experience or funding you are applying for)

Choose your own adventure: If you have at least three months before an application is due, continue on to Step 4. If you’re down to the last weeks or even days, skip to Step 10.

4. Ask a thoughtful question after your professor’s lecture. At least twice. If you are not currently taking a course with him or her, attend a lunchtime lecture, presentation, or other class they are teaching. Don’t be annoying about it, but show that you’re genuinely interested.

5. After another lecture, ask if you could stop by the professor’s office sometime soon to follow up or discuss related questions you have. Prepare for this meeting by doing some background reading. [Be brave: most people don’t become faculty if they don’t enjoy working more personally with students.]

6. During your first meeting, prove that you’ve done your homework and know something about the professor’s career and research interests. You need to establish that you are a veterinary kindred spirit.

7. Follow up with an e-mail thanking him or her for the time and continue the conversation. Ask for some resources on the topics you’ve discussed. Suggest another meeting over lunch in the next few weeks.

8. At this second meeting, propose a way that you could get involved in the professor’s work. This could be one afternoon a week in the lab, a few hours of data entry for a research project, or a summer project.

9. Follow through and do an incredible job. Be motivated and efficient, curious and intelligent. Take initiative. Make it your goal to genuinely add value to this professor’s work and to make his or her life easier.

10. Set up a brief meeting with your professor and arrive fully prepared to explain why you are a competitive applicant and why you would like them to write one of your letters of recommendation.

11. Make it easy for them to write the letter. Provide an updated C.V. along with any other information you think would be helpful for the professor to know as they compose the letter.

12. E-mail to follow up on your request one week before the deadline. Frame it as “just checking in” to see if they have any other questions or need anything else from you to make the process easy.

And that’s it!

If you can plan a few months ahead and faithfully follow these 12 steps, you will put yourself in a great position to have a glowing letter of recommendation for your next application.

You should also check out this post on Dr. Donald Smith’s blog for more advice on letters of recommendation for veterinary students.  He’s a former surgery professor and Dean of Cornell’s vet school, so he has some great insight from the professor’s point of view.

Have I missed any key steps that you have found helpful? What other methods have you used in getting great letters of recommendation?

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8 Responses to “12 Easy Steps to an Amazing Letter of Recommendation from your Professor”

  1. -hopefully soon to be faculty November 26, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    Fwiw, I’d find 4 and 5 quite annoying. Obsequious questioning to get attention is a common vet student trick, and everyone sees and recognizes it. Remember your professors were students once too…

    If you’re genuinely interested in what someone is doing, or have a real question, then by all means ask . Prepping and strategizing to ‘look smart’ once to get a recommendation will not get you a good one from me at least. I’ve worked with ~20 students, and I love having an enthusiastic student genuinely interested in working with me.

    • Elliott November 26, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

      Good points, future faculty. I think the key is in asking questions that you are actually interested in the answers to! I definitely don’t want to advocate the attention-getting annoying practice that can be all too common in vet school lectures.

  2. Dr. Justine Lee November 27, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    I’d agree. 4, 5 and 10 – boo. Key good students stand out, and we don’t need any extra meeting to discuss writing a LOR. Instead, I’d be ok with helping them with life goals, mentorship, internship decisions, but ix-nay on the ten-ay.

  3. ElliottGarber November 27, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Haha, thanks for the input, Justine! So how would you prefer for a student to make “first contact” if not by asking good questions in class or setting up a meeting in person? Are you okay with an e-mail out of the blue?

    • Dr. Justine Lee November 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

      If I’ve worked with that student on clinics, an in-person asking is great, but I’d be fine with email too…

      • Elliott November 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

        Good to know, thanks Justine. I guess I was imagining the pre-clinics student who wouldn’t have much opportunity to meet or interact with a professor outside of class. You’re right that once they’re in the hospital they definitely have easier ways of making those connections.

        • Aubrey Tauer March 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

          Justine isn’t nearly as much of a hard-touch as some profs 🙂


  1. How to Win a $50,000 Veterinary Scholarship and Graduate with a Guaranteed Job - Elliott Garber - March 18, 2014

    […] why you are a good candidate for the program. Make sure you read my advice on how to get a glowing letter of recommendation so you’ll be ready to go when that time […]

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