by Vicki Mason, DHSc

Have you ever hosted a truly outstanding student for a clinical rotation or fieldwork and been surprised to learn that it took him or her several attempts to be admitted into a program?

Have you ever hosted a student for a clinical rotation or fieldwork and found yourself speculating about that year’s applicant pool?

The admissions process for occupational therapy and physical therapy programs often begins with observations, applications, and letters of recommendation. Applicants often submit more than one letter of recommendation. Ideally, each letter definitively and persuasively establishes why the individual stands out in the applicant pool and should be admitted.

Last year as a member of an admissions committee, I read letters from family friends, business owners, employers, co-workers, political figures, faculty, and academic leaders. While many were incredibly passionate letters, I would have traded them all for just one insightful letter from a therapist who hosted the student for an observation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am reading for qualities that might indicate the potential to be a good student, a great employee, and a fabulous therapist. These are the ABCs of what I am searching for in letters of recommendation.

Added Examples of How/Why This Student Earned Your Very Valuable Recommendation

I was completely intrigued when therapists began letters with “In all my _#_ years of being a therapist, I have never seen a student who should be admitted more/will make a better therapist than _name_.” Wow! I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the next sentence with a compelling situation or specific example that impressed this very experienced therapist. Sometimes that sentence never came.

Help the reviewer see the student as you did. Include a specific example that supports why you are leveraging your good name and professional reputation on behalf of the student.

Occasionally I reviewed what I called “down and dirty” letters (just the facts) with date range, total hours, and name of student without examples or comments. I wondered why these letters were so restrained, especially if the writer indicated highly recommend. Sometimes the letter failed to support the level of recommendation. Since the reviewer can’t see what you saw, he or she may wonder if the writer was simply incredibly busy with the day’s caseload, or if something pertinent was intentionally left unsaid.

Behaviors: What Professional Behaviors Were Observed?

Several letters emphasized a selective process for approving observations. Since the observer becomes a walking billboard for the practice or site (even if only for a short-term observation), this tells me that he or she earned the opportunity. I appreciate having that information. Regardless of the approach to approving observations, I am hoping for a few specifics in a letter that point out the applicant’s professional behaviors to substantiate the recommendation.

• Was the student reliable and punctual, yet flexible when schedules changed?
• Was he/she respectful of your site’s “rules,” including dress code, cell phone usage, privacy, and confidentiality?
• Did the student appropriately interact with clients, families, and co-workers? This might include volume and tone of voice and ability to make eye contact, along with actively listening, and not intruding into therapist/client interactions.
• Did he/she treat every team member on staff with respect and appreciation? Did the receptionist, facilities staff, techs, or aides in the clinic express the same positive impressions as the therapists, rehabilitation manager, or clinic owner?

Comments About Commitment and Curiosity

I reviewed letters of recommendation that were clearly for admission to a different program. Sometimes the recommendation was for another rehab discipline. One recommendation championed entry to a completely different healthcare profession outside rehabilitation.

In those cases, I questioned the applicant’s commitment. Admissions committee members are aware that spaces are limited and competition is fierce. As you draft letters of recommendation, you might reflect on the applicant’s commitment and how he or she used the observation opportunity that was so generously provided.

• Did he/she ask appropriate questions about the discipline with a level of knowledge reflective of a thoughtful investigation into a career?
• Did the applicant demonstrate active participation in the observation experience? Did you perceive a sincere commitment to joining your profession or simply a completion of required hours for an application?
• Did the applicant exhibit an intellectual curiosity that maximized the experience and hinted of a future therapist interested in continuing professional development? Did he/she seize opportunities to explore resources and aspects of the setting, request additional learning opportunities, or look for ways to further contribute while at the host site?

Determine How Strongly Your Recommendation Will Be Stated

This involves the reference’s final impression and level of commitment after the observation experience. These types of closing comments were rarely included in letters of recommendation. But, when a therapist concluded the letter with such a powerful statement—it really made an applicant stand out. Before you add your closing comments and note the level of recommendation, ask yourself, “Based on what I observed, how would I feel about…” the following:

• Hosting this applicant for a future practicum or fieldwork experience?
• Hiring him or her for an entry-level job in the field?
• Welcoming him or her into my profession as a colleague?
• Having him or her as my rehab therapist in the future?

From my perspective, each document in an admission’s application file is one piece of a puzzle. GPAs, GRE scores, transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendation fit together and provide a picture of the applicant. Reviewers are trying to presciently envision each applicant’s strengths and potential fit within the program and the profession.

As an admissions committee member, I was looking for the total package—individuals with potential to be good students, great employees, and fabulous therapists. Help reviewers see what you see. Shape the future of the rehabilitation disciplines, and remember: The applicants that you recommend may one day be in charge of your treatment plan! RM

Vicki Mason, DHSc, is associate professor at the University of Providence, School of Health Professions (Great Falls, Montana). She was previously a member of the admissions committee that reviewed applications and letters of recommendation for Texas Woman’s University, School of Occupational Therapy. For more information, contact [email protected].

This article appears in the print issue of the Rehab Management Product Directory 2018-2019 as “Shaping the Future of Rehabilitation Professions.”