Advice on Letters of Recommendation

Tips and Resources for Graduate Students

Experts who review hundreds of fellowship applications per year say that letters of recommendation are the most important element that helps students stand out from the crowd. Here are some tips to elicit the best letters about your strengths:  

  1. Identify the right people to write your letters. The person writing your letter should really know you and can serve as a genuine advocate. Avoid a lukewarm letter from some big-name person who doesn’t know you. It can hurt more than it can help. Terse, badly-written paragraphs about what a good job you did on a particular clinical rotation are not going to help you. What does help you is a faculty mentor commenting on what you can do and what you accomplished during an extended research experience.  
  2. Let your recommenders know qualities needed for the fellowship. For example, a fellowship may be looking for someone with leadership qualities and out-of-the-box thinking. Remind your recommender of something you did that that illustrates this (“You may remember that I was the team leader for the senior project on ….”). Often recommenders are asked to write letters for many other students and they may not have your particular strengths at the top of their minds. How you ask for a letter of recommendation is just as important as who you ask.
  3. Compile letters that are consistent about what makes you special. What closes the deal, at least to get an interview, is not just one over-the-top letter, but a consistent message across all the letters. Consistent messages about you communicate to reviewers that: “this person is special, this person is really motivated. This is one of the best people to have come through this program in the last 10 years.”  

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Avoid terms like “well-groomed or “great people skills” or “thorough patient work-ups.” These are all pretty much givens. You wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t have a least some of these qualities.
  • Don’t write what you think reviewers want to hear. Your application needs to be genuine and highlight what makes you unique. You are selling yourself and truth in advertising goes a long way.