Letters of Recommendation

Who should I ask?

Russ Castronovo, professor of english, meets with a graduate student in the his office in Helen C. White Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Feb. 9, 2016. Castronovo is one of twelve 2016 Distinguished Teaching Award recipients. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Most health professions programs require at least three letters of recommendation. You will most likely need letters from faculty, a volunteer or job supervisor, and maybe from a professional you shadowed. (This is especially common for DO, PA, PT, optometry, and OT programs). Be sure to check with individual programs to see who they want to hear from. Most important about the people you ask to write letters for you is that they know you well. Because UW-Madison is a large university, it’s true that you have to go out of your way to get to know faculty. Go to office hours, ask questions after class, and establish substantive relationships with professors you want to learn more from and feel you might connect with. You will be very glad you did.

How should I ask?

It can be nice to ask in person, but you should do what you feel would be best on the basis of the relationship you have with the potential letter writer. Before you ask, think about what you have learned from this person and why you want to ask them for a letter of recommendation. When you ask this person if they would consider writing a letter for you, tell them why you have chosen to ask them in particular, what your goals are, and why you are interested in your chosen healthcare field. Also, ask if they would be willing to invest time in getting to know you better (if you need to do this) and what they feel they need from you in order to write a strong letter (e.g., resume, personal statement, more conversations with you).

When should I ask?

Ask your letter writers if they are willing to write a letter as early as possible in the year you plan to apply—ideally, the fall before your application. This will give you time to establish a strong relationship, if you need to do that. You might talk with the letter writer even earlier than the fall before you apply if you are confident you want this person to write you a letter. You will want to ask them to sit down and write the letter when you submit your application. This will give them a month to write the letter. Ideally, your letter writers will submit their letters no latter than a month after you submit the application.

Keeping in touch

Check in with your letter writers during the year before you apply. Ask the individual what they need to know about you (motivations, preparedness, accomplishments, etc.) in order to be able to write specifically about these things in their letters. In addition to your resume and personal statement, offer a “cheat sheet” of other accomplishments and activities your writers might mention (e.g., how you performed in their class, volunteering, etc.).

Submitting the letters

Find out how your schools want to receive letters of recommendation. Many use centralized, electronic application services. Some request paper copies. Have all of this information and give it to each of your letter writers. In either case, the letters should be confidential—you should not read their letters before they are submitted. In addition to using centralized application services for submitting letters of recommendation, you might also consider creating an Interfolio account. Interfolio is a paid letter service that allows you to set up an online portfolio that you can maintain throughout your undergraduate career.


Send a thank you note to your letter writers and keep them in the loop about acceptances.


Want to learn more about applying to health professional programs? Sign up for a CPHA Application Course. These are Canvas courses that serve as resource libraries. Each one introduces you to the ins-and-outs of applying to programs.