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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

3 or 4 Letters: The Dilemma

I'm often asked whether having four recommendation letters makes an applicant better than a applicant with only three letters.

First, stop comparing yourself to others.
Second, stop comparing yourself to others.
Third, stop comparing yourself to others.

Let's unpack this often-asked question....

The facts:
  • We require at least three recommendation letters be RECEIVED (by PharmCAS) by the application deadline.
  • We do not accept letters outside of the PharmCAS application. All letters must be submitted through PharmCAS. PharmCAS includes helpful information on their website.
  • PharmCAS allows up to four recommendation letters as part of an individual's application.
  • If four letters are included in your application by the deadline, we will include all four letters in your file.
  • We leave it up to the applicant to decide their three (or four) recommenders. This is a decision you must make.
  • We won't accept a recommendation letter from a "Friend" or "Family Member". 
  • Ultimately, it's the applicant's responsibility to make sure at least three letters are on file by the application deadline.  A complete application, including at least three letters of recommendation, is the responsibility of the applicant. Don't jeopardize your application by assuming your references will submit letters on your behalf. You must follow-up. You must constantly check your application status in PharmCAS. 
  • It would be helpful (but not required) to receive a letter from someone who could speak to your academic abilities. (After all, you are applying to an academic program.)
  • Recommendation letters are also called references. PharmCAS uses the term "Evaluators". It's all the same. I use these terms interchangeably. 

My thoughts:
  • Recommendation letters are one piece of a very large puzzle. It's a very important piece, don't get me wrong (as I discussed in a previous blog post), but it's not the deciding factor in being successful in an admissions process.
  • We don't have a system that awards points (or extra credit!) for an applicant that has four letters, instead of three.
  • If an applicant has four letters, is that automatically better than an applicant who has three? Absolutely not. Again, absolutely not. For those in the back row: ABSOLUTELY NOT!
  • The content of the letters is most important to us. What are the references saying about the applicant? How well do they know them? Are the letters consistent? Do the letters add value to the application? Do the references validate what the applicant has said about themselves?
  • I often encourage applicants to include four references with their application. Not because it gives an applicant an advantage, but because I believe in taking advantage of an opportunity. The opportunity here is the ability to submit four references. Why only take three cookies if someone is offering four? (Yes, I love cookies.)
  • Some schools require very specific references -- such as a letter from a pharmacist. Maybe you don't know a pharmacist well, but you must submit a pharmacist reference to satisfy another school's requirement. Knowing the pharmacist's letter won't add much value to your application for all schools you are applying to, it could be beneficial to get a fourth letter to help compensate for the pharmacist's letter. (Note: UCSF does not require a letter from a pharmacist.)
  • Obsessing over four letters, when you only have three, is a waste of your time. Move on. Let it go (let it goo, let it goo, let it goooo.

Closing argument:
I often use a courtroom example when explaining recommendation letters. Imagine you are a lawyer and arguing a case in a courtroom. You have the chance to call three (or four) witnesses to the stand to help support your case. Three very strong witnesses may be all you need. They provide detailed information. They are consistent in their testimony. They know the details of what happened. They add value to the case. They are credible witnesses.  On the flipside, maybe one witness (or two, or three) are "weak". They aren't very convincing. Their memory is hazy. They aren't convincing. They don't add much value to the case. They don't know you very well. In this case, calling a fourth witness to the stand could certainly help your case. 

Case dismissed!

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