Arguably one of the most important components of your application will be your minimum three letters of recommendation. These letters of recommendation should be from people, preferably in the medical field who have worked directly with you during your patient contact hours.
If you choose to select one of your professors from your undergraduate studies, that may also be acceptable, but no more than one. Ideally you should contact the programs you are interested in to confirm what are considered proper and acceptable references.
These letters should come from people that are respected and admired in their field that have clear knowledge of your intentions and qualifications. Make sure you select people who have a favorable opinion of you, your background and your probability for success in PA school. Be aware that most people are honored that you respect their opinion and will be delighted to write your letter of recommendation.
However, if you sense any hesitation on their part, please reconsider having them write your recommendation. These letters carry a great deal of weight in the decision whether or not you get to interview for the program of your choice.
Assuming you are applying through CASPA there is an option for your evaluator to send the reference electronically. This is ideal since the evaluator will be sent an email requesting the reference and you will be able to monitor through your account when the references are completed.
By all means if a reasonable time has elapsed between request and confirmation of receipt please respectfully contact your evaluator and remind them how important it is that the recommendation be sent in a timely manner.
Be sure that your evaluator is aware the email is coming immediately after you list them as a reference, however, the email may be caught in the spam folder, so encourage them to monitor this folder in their email program.
There is also a paper option, in which case you should print the reference forms and supply an addressed stamped envelope to your evaluator.
The reference itself is a two part form the first part is a ratings evaluation of the basic criteria of you as an applicant. These are as follows:
- Your maturity level
The PA program, no matter where you go will require you to act with maturity and dignity befitting your future position as a professional. The program and the profession are very demanding and will require you to act in a mature and responsible way as an integral part of a care giving team.
- Passion for the work of a Physician Assistant
When we describe passion for a profession, it is about our commitment not just to the work, but to continued growth as a professional. Passion is what allows us to go on when the work or the studies become difficult and hard to manage.
- Your work ethic
Your work ethic refers to how seriously you take your work. Do you miss days? Are you punctual? Do you take your responsibilities seriously? Remember as a PA you will in many cases serve as the primary care giver and as such it is vital that you be able to prioritize your work and your patients.
- Strengths and weaknesses
While we all hope to concentrate on our strengths, we must be aware of our weaknesses and steadily attempt to improve ourselves. If one of the people you are considering as a recommendation has observed you in your weaknesses or worse yet, commented on them, please reconsider using them as a reference.
A Physician Assistant by definition is part of a larger healthcare team. No matter how bright or insightful we may believe ourselves to be, we should always show respect for the opinions of others and in many cases, as with a supervising physician, defer to their care plan. Remember the patient and the nurses are also part of the healthcare team, without whom, our work would not be possible.
The second portion of the reference is an open letter which deals with the above topics in more detail. Please make your evaluator aware if you are applying to multiple programs, that way they can make the address itself somewhat generic, “To whom it may concern” as opposed to “Dear Dr. Smithfield.”
In summary, choose your references carefully. Choose people with whom you have worked well with in the past and who have respect for you and your goals. People who have seen you at your best are your best choices for this very important task. As you evaluate who you will ask to provide a reference remember to seek out those that have expressed admiration for your choice to become a PA.
While on paper it may seem better to receive a reference from the director of a program, even if they do not know you very well, it is far better to receive a glowing reference from someone who has observed you in the clinical setting and felt that you did an excellent job.
My advice is to always obtain at least one letter from a Physician Assistant. After all, you ARE applying to PA school.