Finding Verifiers & Referees
Finding verifiers for activities and referees for applications is sometimes the most difficult, confusing, and stressful part of the application process to medical school. It often feels entirely out of your control! However, with a little bit of background knowledge and some preparation it is actually one of the easiest components of applying.
Verifiers vs. Referees:
It’s important to make sure the responsibility of each role is clear. Verifiers are individuals who are listed with each activity for your non-academic sketch. You will be asked to provide contact information for someone who is able to “verify” that you participated in the activity you listed and that your description of the activity is accurate. Some schools will do this over e-mail or some might phone your verifier. Medical schools will check in with verifiers at random. There is no way to predict what will happen and this is just one of the reasons why you must be honest with how you compose your sketch and who you choose as a verifier.
Referees are individuals who endorse you as an applicant to medicine; they act as “references” similar to if you were applying for a job. Similarly, there will be some variation to how this is done between schools. You likely don’t have much more to do other than providing schools your verifier/referee contact information. For referees only, a school might give you directions on how to provide a reference for you to pass on, but you will still have little involvement with the process.
It’s easier to begin talking just about verifiers alone but you’ll get all the helpful hints about referees along the way….
While it shouldn’t guide your decision whether or not to participate in an activity, it’s easier to find reliable verifiers and referees from structured activities in formal organizations. This is because unstructured/informal activities are often unsupervised and it’s hard to know who actually can verify an activity. It’s easiest to find verifiers from those who you directly worked with, especially if these were activities with long-term involvement. This is another reason why it’s important to plan ahead and choose activities that you’re passionate about. You’re more likely to build connections and stick with activities for a longer period of time if you enjoy them. However, almost everyone, regardless of the type of activities they choose, finds themselves wanting to list an activity without knowing who can verify it. People move, positions change, or things are forgotten. It happens. Maybe you worked for your family business or organized an event with your friends. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes, but there’s always something to be done.
Ideally, the verifier should be someone who is not a friend or family member...
Generally, the requirements of a suitable verifier are less stringent than people think. Ideally, this should be someone who is not a friend or family member who directly supervised you in your task. But you have several options if this can’t be managed. If a friend or family member is actually your direct supervisor, you can confirm with the individual school if it’s okay to use this person as a verifier. They likely have a policy around this; it’s not an unusual position to be in. Alternatively, you could present some evidence of your involvement to someone who acts in a position of trust (professor, physician, clergy member, police offer, lawyer, etc) and explain your situation to him or her. This person would be someone who can act as a character reference to verify your activity, meaning that they believe you to be honest and you have provided them with sufficient evidence t for the activity you listed on your application sketch. You can also do this if you don’t know who to ask to be your verifier or if you can’t get in contact with the appropriate verifier.
If you have any questions, it’s best to check with the school. Lots of successful applicants have been in this position. It’s not unusual and schools know how to deal with this.
To prevent some of these challenges and to make it easier to find a good referee later on:
1.) Make your intentions known
Before you leave any activity, make an effort to connect with your supervisor or someone in a leadership position to let them know that you are pursuing medicine and may need someone to act as a verifier in the future. Many times you’ll be given a name and contact information for someone who could be used. This is also a helpful way to get information for someone you could later contact for a reference.
2.) Stay in touch
If you’ve made connections with colleagues in activities, stay in touch after your activity is completed. A personal relationship shouldn’t be forced if you’re not comfortable, but the occasional check-in or inquiry is a thoughtful way to express your appreciation and remain fresh in someone’s mind. If you can spare the time to return to the activity periodically, that is also helpful. As well, it gives potential referees the opportunity to see a long-term commitment and evaluate your growth and maturity.
3.) Keep good records
Create your own log book if one is not provided for you. Log your name, date, hours you were involved, brief description of what you did, and try to have someone at the activity sign it before you leave. This log can be given to a verifier at the organization or anyone else in the future. If you complete an activity or are no longer involved, politely ask for a verification letter for your records. This may not necessarily be a reference, but a document stating the nature of your activity and the time you were involved. This letter can be used in the future to remind someone within the organization of your involvement. Other items that can be used are pictures, copies of items you created (maintain confidentiality if others were involved), or any notices/summaries about the activity where you were mentioned.
Choosing your referees:
Most commonly, schools will ask for three referees that are willing to write you a reference letter (or letter of recommendation/evaluation) in support of your application to medical school. You will sometimes be given direction on how to choose these individuals (ie: a personal reference, academic reference, etc.) but the selection can still feel overwhelming. Still, there are really only two things to keep in mind:
1.) Think first of the strength of the individual letter
References are used because they give schools an idea of how future patients and colleagues may view you. You want to have the most positive and comprehensive reference possible. These endorsements come from individuals who know you for a long time and have observed you in different settings and tasks; you’ll probably find obvious choices in your most significant activities. Perhaps you’re thinking of asking a professor to be a reference because you got an “A” in their class. But think: if you had limited interaction with this teacher in or out of class, what more could she possibly add beyond saying that you got an “A” – which is already on your transcript? However, if you had a seminar for this class with a TA (who read your work and interacted with you in the group), he/she would be a more suitable choice.
2.) Think second of the strength of your references as a group
Because references give schools insight into how you might function as a medical student and physician, you want to demonstrate you’re as well rounded as possible. Perhaps you were involved in three significant research projects and could collect three strong references from each of your supervisors. But think: what possible difference could there be between those three letters and how would they give a school an idea of how you would work in any setting other than research? However, if you volunteered at a homeless shelter, a reference from that activity is able to share a different perspective of you. This way, schools will know how you interact and help others, in addition to your skills as a researcher.
Should every referee be a physician?
You should have at least one reference from a medical doctor. The best person to assess your suitability for a profession is someone who actually practices in that profession. Having a reference who is a physician also infers that you have some awareness of the field and that is important to schools. However, it is actually helpful to have referees who can describe you multiple ways.
If you have a very healthcare based resume you can consider asking for a reference from someone in a related profession as well. There is a huge emphasis on inter-professional collaboration in medical education. Nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and people from other fields that work with physicians can provide a very important perspective on how successful you will be working with these disciplines in the future.
Does the referee’s title matter?
It’s always tempting to think that the individual with the highest position or most credentials will be the stronger referee. In actuality, the strongest references come from those with whom you have worked with the longest . They give schools a better idea of who you are and what you can achieve. Perhaps you have considered asking your manager at work to be a reference. But think: if you worked more closely with a co-worker with whom you also had discussions about your motivation for medicine, who would be the stronger reference? Schools care more about what is said about you instead of the title of the person who is saying it.
How to ask someone to be a verifier or referee:
The most difficult part of securing a verifier or referee is how you go about asking the desired individuals to take on the role. It’s awkward to receive an inquiry from a medical school out of the blue! You must get permission prior to listing anyone as either a verifier or referee. This is professional courtesy. It also has the added benefit of letting you “pre-screen” someone’s ability to act as a verifier or referee. Likewise, it’s very important that you give these individuals, especially referees, ample time (at least one month) to prepare their letters. Preparing references can be a time consuming task for those who are already busy. You also don’t want to risk that the referee doesn’t have enough time to complete your reference and your entire application is discarded.
If you are asking a verifier...
Try to first to contact her by phone or email. If you are asking a verifier, explain that you are applying to medical school and have listed, on your application, the activity in which she worked with you. Say that there is no commitment or task involved on her part, but there is a chance a medical school could be in contact to verify that your description is accurate. At that point, you should review your description of the activity and the amount of time that you have listed with the verifier. This way, you can get permission to list her and also ensure that she will not contradict your description. It would be a red flag on your application if a verifier did not agree with your account of the activity or the time that you said you spent on the activity.
If you are asking a referee...
If you are asking a referee, you will also explain that you are applying to medical school. Say that the time you were involved in the activity with them was a meaningful part of your professional growth and you would be appreciative if he would provide a reference to support your application and speak to your suitability for medicine. You’ll likely be able to tell from the response you get whether or not the reference will be very strong. If you have any doubts that the reference will be supportive or not, it’s best to choose another individual who you know would be more supportive.
Many applicants worry about certain areas of their application including having a poor first or second year in university. Referees can be important resources and you can ask them to speak about such discrepancies as your academic performance. . For example, “I had some difficulty when I first began school but I was able to be successful in my last two years at school. I’m hoping you agree that I performed very well in your class. Would you be able to speak to my work ethic and your thoughts on my performance as a student?”
When you have all your references turned in, don’t forget to show your gratitude. Most applicants will provide referees with a small gift of thanks as a token of their appreciation. As you’ll typically have many more verifiers and the demands on their time are less than that of refrees, you wouldn’t be expected to provide them a gift as well.
You should try a maximum of three times to contact a potential verifier or referee, at least once by phone and email each. If you cannot get in touch with him/her or your inquiries are not answered, you should consider this person unavailable and try to find another verifier. If this person is not responding to you, they will not respond to a medical school either.
Sometimes referees need reminders. As you approach the deadline, check in with referees who have not yet provided a reference. Be polite but say that the deadline is approaching and you are wondering about the status of the letter. You’ll be able to gauge from their response whether or not submitting the letter on time is possible. If not, you’ll have to begin working on Plan B (another referee) in short order. It’s best not to be pressuring or ask when s/he will have it done, but this is a necessary part of your application and that needs to be communicated clearly. For example, “Unfortunately, without all my references completed and given to the school in time, my entire application will be discarded and I won’t be eligible for admission. I appreciate that you have other demands on your time and it would be helpful to know at this point if you will be challenged meeting the deadline of December 15th.”
It can be challenging knowing who to call on as a verifier or referee. However, with a little preparation and thought, you’ll be able to rally a great team of people to support you in a successful application!
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About the author:
Dr. Natalie Lidster is currently an anaesthesia resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has a nursing degree and an M.D. from McMaster medical school and has been involved in the admissions process.
To your success,