Advice for Letter Writers
Sometimes called "Letters of Evaluation," letters of recommendation are an important piece of your application to a health professional program. These letters are from professionals who know you well and who you feel can confidently recommend you for application to a particular school or program.
Guidance for Letter Writers
Should you write the letter?
When a student approaches you and asks for a letter of recommendation consider the following:
- How well do I know this student?
- Has the student put forth an effort to get to know me?
- Do I know the student well enough that I could provide examples that elucidate the student’s qualities?
- Do I have the time to write an effective letter?
Students often need letters from science professors, and yet often those classes serve hundreds of students. It is hard to get to know students well enough to write a strong letter. It is important that you know the student beyond the actual class time. This could mean the student has talked to you after class, or has come to office hours and shown some initiative to get to know you.
Keep in mind it is okay to say no. If you do not have time, you do not feel confident in writing a strong letter, or any other reason, it is okay to say no.
You have agreed to write a letter of recommendation...now where to begin?
Remember that the admissions committee will have a great deal of information on the student already, so the letter should be your perspective on the student. Be as objective as possible, providing solid information and examples that can be used to support the admissions committee’s decision making process.
If possible, begin by meeting with the student, or getting the information identified below from the student.
What can/should students provide to you?
A student should provide you everything you need to write a sufficient letter. This can be sent to you, but often it is a good idea to meet with a student to make sure you understand what they are looking for, and you can clarify any questions prior to writing your letter.
If students have not already provided you with information, it is completely acceptable to ask them to provide you with their:
- Updated résumé
- Transcript, or at least a list of classes they have taken
- Personal statement, or other application materials
- Who the other letter writers are, and what their perspective might be
- Information on the logistics of the letter, including due date, submission process, etc.
What should the letters cover?
The student should provide you some guidance on what the programs are looking for, but generally, health profession programs are looking for students with a:
- High academic capacity
- Knowledge or experience of research
- Knowledge and experience in the field of choice
- Community and public service (volunteer activities)
- Strong character qualities
Writing a strong letter:
Strong letters will contain some detail about how you know the student. Begin by including information on who you are. This information will help add credibility both to your relationship with the student, but also to your judgment on the student’s capabilities.
Describe your relationship with the student. Provide specifics on how you know the student. For example, do you know them through class work, research, lab or other work, volunteering or other setting? Explain how long you have known the student and the relationship that you have developed during that time.
Articulate the qualities you see in the student, and evidence of those qualities. Explain why you think this student has the capacity to be successful in the field they have chosen, and if you can, reflect on why you think they would be a good fit. Use stories and examples to make your point. Use concrete words that help an admissions committee understand the qualities that you talk about, but back them up with evidence. Where relevant, compare the student with others, particularly if this student stands out in some special way.
Remember to describe the student in descriptive terms, using examples where possible. “Samantha is a detail-oriented student. While completing her research, she conducted the most extensive literature review of all her peers, and found a wide range of excellent resources”. [See list of words to help find the right descriptors].
Avoid clichés, jargon and acronyms. What might seem relevant to you may not be relevant to the admissions committee.
Avoid making the admission decision for the committee by stating things like, “This student should get in”. While you might feel this student deserves, or does not deserve to be in the program, be sure to provide only the factual information you have, and let the admissions committee do its job by looking through all the information and documentation.
Conclude the letter by offering to be contacted should the reader need more information or have questions. Make sure to provide your phone number and perhaps the best times to reach you.
Keep in mind that based on the good information you include in your letter, the admissions committee can shape their interview to learn even more about the student.
Weak or poor letters are letters that:
- Sound generic, lack specifics, or examples
- Only provide information that could be found in the application (e.g. the transcript)
- Talk more about the letter writer than the applicant
- Provide shallow praise without evidence
- Use terminology that might be unrecognizable in another location
- Are not timely (someone writes about an old relationship when the student was a freshman, etc.)
- Show gender bias. Two studies by Trix and Psenka (2003) and Schmader, Whitehead, and Wysocki (2007) show that letters for women have fewer strong adjectives, and might even contain information that raises doubts.
- Contain personal information that has not been previously approved by the student (e.g. a medical condition that might have impacted grades, etc.)
How to write a letter that articulates a concern:
If you have concerns about a student’s fit with a profession, their academic capacity, or any other concern, it is acceptable to share it with the admissions committee. However, if you do this, provide some evidence of your concern so that the admissions committee can weigh that evidence with all the other evidence they have about the student. The key is not for you to judge the student, but rather to simply provide your relevant information so the admissions committee can make the determination. Additionally, refrain from sharing any information that is irrelevant. Here are two examples:
- John was an academically strong applicant, but he was not as mature as his letter writer thought one needed to be as a medical student. John worked in Dr. Ray’s lab, and was prone to finding short-cuts, and showing up late or leaving early. Often he has a list of excuses to support his situation.
- In the case above, it is important to share your concerns, and provide your observations about your concern, including evidence to support your claims. If your concern is John’s work ethic, the committee might actually have additional information that shows John was significantly over-committed, and his real problem isn’t a poor work ethic, but rather an inability to manage his time.
- Sarah is a highly motivated student and very committed to being a physician because both her parents are physicians. Through the years, you have gotten to know Sarah, and in conversations have heard Sarah express self-doubts about her desire to be a physician. She has even expressed that she might prefer veterinary medicine.
- In this situation, if you have concrete evidence and want to share the information, you could describe Sarah’s clear capacity to be a physician, and your hope that she has explored the field enough to be confident in her choice.