Types of Dental School Letters of Recommendation

 There a few types of letters you can submit in your AADSAS application. Not all of these will apply to you.

  1. The Committee letter.

There is an option in lieu of several letters to have a pre-health career committee at a university screen you and submit a letter of rec for you instead. This will  replace 3 letters: the 2 science letters and miscellaneous letter. I personally did not have this option available to me, but I know people who did. Although it’s a pain in the a$$, it’s worth it if you have the opportunity.

You basically have to apply to the pre-health career committee for a letter for your application to dental school, then they schedule an interview with you that you should take VERY seriously. Only then will they prepare a letter for you. Some pre-dental advisors say this is stronger than individual letters of rec, and I would tend to agree. Simply because there is an interview and screening process and the letter is prepared by a committee of multiple people. Some dental schools even explicitly encourage you to get a committee letter where possible!

There is less chance an applicant bribed someone for letters or some other questionable activity if a committee prepares it, and the letter is prepared by people directly related to health careers who have interviewed many students. Adcoms also prefer to read one good letter from a committee instead of multiple (potentially generic) letters from science professors. Adcoms are people too.

If you have the option through a university to apply for a committee letter, I really encourage you to do so. If ONLY because you can control your performance in an interview (prepare!) and they are ACCOUNTABLE. Emphasis on “accountable”. You won’t have to worry as much if they are going to actually get your letter submitted...unless you completely drop the ball and bomb the interview. (At least they will tell you they can’t recommend you, though.)

  1. Letters from a dentist.

For the dental letter, I suggest it be the general dentist you have shadowed with the most. Ideally, you have seen many procedures with this dentist and had an opportunity to  discuss what you saw with them. Hopefully they have gotten to know you and what you are like a bit along the  way.

I say “general dentist” because most people who graduate school do not go on to become a specialist. If your letter comes from a specialist (and so do a majority of your shadowing hours), then it comes across as you having a limited perspective on dentistry. 

And while  we are on the topic, saying in your application “I’m going to become an orthodontist” or whatever specialty comes off as naive. I’m not saying you can’t believe that (and maybe you will go on to become a specialist), but it’s more important to be realistic and express interest in all sub-disciplines of dentistry. You have to become a general dentist before you can become a dental specialist.

This is tricky if you come from a dental family. It is discouraged for your family to write you a letter. So if daddy’s a dentist, great for you, but it isn’t what the adcoms are looking for. Who’s dad is going to write a letter not recommending their kid? (But if they did, that would kind of seal the deal.) Family letters don’t carry as much weight (even if they are true!) because they are less likely to be considered and objective perspective of you.

The dentist will probably try to do a few things in their letter: confirm that you have shadowed them often, express that they have noticed how you behave in their office with their staff, patients, etc., and give their two cents if they think you are cut out for the profession.

  1. Letters from science professors.

These letters are a bit harder in my opinion for a few reasons. If you go to even a remotely average university, there are probably a ton of people in all of your core science classes and you will need to go above and beyond to stand out. The professors you ask for letters from should be professors that you have spent a lot of office hours with, performed well in their class, and/or (bonus points!) completed research with or TA’ed for one of their courses.

If you are early on in your college career, form these relationships early. Hopefully, you are engaged with all of your classes across all disciplines, but the science professors are the ones adcoms expect a letter from. Go to office hours, volunteer for projects in the professor’s lab, join the club they sponsor, express your interest and ambitions for pursuing a science-based career. Ask them at least 6 months in advance (before you submit your AADSAS application) if they feel they could write a good letter to support your application to dental school. 

The AADSAS may only expect you to provide 2 letters, but you should have MORE than 2 professors waiting in the wings to write you a letter. Professors get busy. They transfer schools, write grants, quit their jobs, have sick loved ones, have deadlines to meet, research to do, papers to grade, and live every bit of a busy and complex life as you do. Your letter is not their priority. Even if they agree, life happens to them too. 

It is important to check with (all) letter-writers early and often. They may agree in January, but have a death in the family in May which makes it impossible for them to get to that letter for you by June. As soon as you can (and once they agree), add them as a letter-writer in your AADSAS so they will get the link in their email to upload/fill out their letter. Don’t harass them, but check in for milestones: Did they get the link? Have they had a chance to look at it? When do they plan to submit it? You will get an email confirmation once they have submitted, so be very suspicious if they say “it’s done” and you haven’t gotten confirmation from AADSAS.

It’s cringey enough to ask for a letter. But having to breathe down a professor/dentist/whoever’s neck to get them to write it and actually SUBMIT it will make you blush.

If you are like me and took a few years after undergrad to pursue other careers/opportunities, then you are probably far removed from a university and it may even have been years since you had a core science class. That makes these letters incredibly difficult to obtain. (Did I mention how letters of rec are gatekeeping and I hate them?) You can always reach out to your science professors from years previous. Hopefully you had a good enough relationship then that they remember you and will be willing to help you out. When you reach out, try calling or email, and provide them with your resume and explain your situation. Some might want to meet and chat so they feel more prepared to write a good letter.

If you don’t have those relationships with your science professors from years previous, or they don’t contact you back (or remember you) then the next steps are a bit more drastic. You will likely need to enroll in one or more science courses at the closest university (AADSAS doesn’t like online courses), and take it in-person to form these relationships and get the ball rolling. I’m sorry non-traditional applicants. I acknowledge all of the problems with that if you work full-time and/or have a family to care for. AADSAS will only accept science courses/credits from the last few years, so maybe you need to update a few courses anyways. It is also an opportunity to retake any courses to improve your GPA or show you have grown as a student.

  1. Miscellaneous Letters

This letter can be from almost anyone. Anyone who can attest to your good qualities. It could be a community leader who knows you well, a sports coach, your boss at your job, your band director, your health career advisor, etc. I asked one of my coaches from my community college speech team, for example.

I would be careful with this one though because it is such an open book. Make sure whoever you ask will write a good letter for you. They should be aware of how serious this letter is and what kinds of qualities about you they should focus on.

I hate to be the gatekeeper here, but they should probably have a college degree--even better if it’s a masters or PhD. That increases the odds they are a good writer and the adcom will respect them. 

AVOID AVOID AVOID people in potentially controversial positions like bipartisan political leaders, faith leaders, etc. (Maybe don’t ask your cult leader or the president of your Q-anon conspirator’s club to write about your leadership ability or something...) I’m not saying don’t fly your flag, just don’t fly it in your dental school application. You never know who is going to be reading that letter and determining your fate.

Here is another general note of advice. Don’t just ask someone to write you a letter because they have a big fancy title and you or your family kind of knows them. It’s cool if you are family friends with the mayor or something, but if they don’t know you super well and haven’t worked with you closely, their impressive title is not going to overshadow a generic and shallow letter that is supposed to be about you.

I hope this gives you a good idea of where to start! Remember, ask early and often until every letter is submitted!