Writing a Letter of Recommendation – Tips for Mentors

October 9, 2018

al-nik-382503-unsplashAs postbacs prepare to apply for graduate school, many might be coming to you to ask for a letter of recommendation. It can be hard to know how to start these all-important letters, so here are some things to keep in mind as you draft your reference letter.

First and foremost, you should only agree to write a letter if you feel you know the person well and if you can write positively about your working experience with them. If not, you might want to mention that the requestor should contact others who could better speak to their work. Don’t feel compelled to write a letter out of obligation, especially if you feel uncomfortable writing favorably or if you think your assessment could hinder their chances of acceptance.

What You Need to Write a Letter

If you feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation, then make sure the requestor provides you some background information. If it is for a job, they should give you their CV/resume and a copy of the job description. If it is for graduate/medical school, they should give you their CV/resume, a list of the schools they are applying to, and a copy of their personal statement. This information will be helpful background as you write your letter on their behalf. It would also be a good idea to check in with the person about the top three things they would like you to address in reference to the position or institution. For example, for graduate school, you will most likely want to speak to not only their analytical abilities but their work ethic as well. If you are writing a letter for a medical school applicant, you will want to check out the AAMC website where they offer detailed instructions for letter writers. Writers are encouraged to touch on the applicant’s competencies along four dimensions: thinking/reasoning, science, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

 

Formatting

In terms of format, letters of recommendation are generally one page and one to three paragraphs long. They must be signed and dated; ideally, it will be on official letterhead. You should start by noting how long you have known this person and in what capacity. Be sure to clarify your role/title and relationship (supervisor, colleague, etc) to the applicant.

Then, you will want to move on to your endorsement of the candidate. Keep in mind the three points they wanted you to address but be specific when doing so. General statements like, “Bailey is a hard worker” tend to fall flat unless supported with examples. You could rephrase it to say, “Bailey has demonstrated an excellent work ethic and commitment to the team. One of our projects required somebody from the lab to come in each weekend day to harvest cells. Bailey volunteered every time to help out and was a pivotal member of our team during busy work times.” It also helps admissions committees if you favorably compare the student to others you have known. As an example: “In terms of analytical abilities, Bailey is in the top 10% of undergraduate students that I have worked with in the past ten years.” Speaking to both their skill sets and personal characteristics is usually the winning combination. Try to address and conclude with one or two traits that make them especially suitable for where they are applying.

Be Aware of Gender Bias

We wrote about gender bias in letters of recommendation a few years ago. A study by Trix and Psenka (2003) examined 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions and determined that recommenders unconsciously described candidates in stereotypically gendered ways:

  • Men were described as “successful” and “accomplished” and letters for male applicants contained more repetitions of superlatives such as “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Women were described as “nurturing” and “compassionate” and letters for female applicants often include doubt raisers, statements like: “It appears that her health and personal life are stable.”

Letters for female applicants were shorter and lacked basic features like a description of the writer’s relationship with the applicant, comments on the applicant’s academic traits and achievements, and/or evaluative comments. Letters for males were more aligned with critical job requirements and used stronger language like “excellent research record” and “ability”.

Make sure you aren’t falling prey to gender bias when writing your letter. You can copy and paste your letter into a Gender Bias Calculator here.

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Personal Statements: Your Portrait in 5,000 Characters or Less

October 20, 2014

Have you ever taken to the task of trying to put on paper what is special, unique, distinctive and impressive about you and your life story? Well, if you are applying to graduate and/or medical school, you soon will in the form of a personal statement.

Personal statements are a standard part of the application and they give you the chance to sell yourself to the admissions committee. Often times, you are given a somewhat general and vague prompt to tell the committee about yourself and how their program fits into your longer term career goals. This type of prompt gives you much more flexibility. Other applications, however, might ask you to answer a specific question, or they may even require that you answer three to four different types of questions in shorter essay forms. Here are some things to keep in mind as you draft any personal statement:

FOLLOW DIRECTIONS
If you are unclear about length requirements, then double check! Brevity is often preferred so make sure each line is clear and concise. Each school/program is a little bit different and it behooves you to make sure you are following the directions and answering the prompts perfectly for that specific program. This means tailoring each essay/answer for every school you are applying to!

CREATE YOUR NARRATIVE
How did you become interested in this field? What have you done to confirm this decision as your next step? Have you overcome any challenges or obstacles during this process? What skills/personal characteristics have been highlighted through your experiences?

Most people prefer to be told information through a story rather than reading a rote list of qualifications, so be sure to demonstrate your skills through concrete experiences in the form of anecdotes.

DON’T BE TOO PERSONAL
Sure, you are writing a personal statement but it shouldn’t be too personal, especially if you write about a topic that would make you uncomfortable to talk about in person. Writing about a topic alone at your laptop can be very different than speaking about that same topic in a room full of strangers (i.e., the admissions committee interview). Many times we see applicants who are shocked to be asked about something they wrote about in their personal statement. If you write about it, then be prepared to be asked follow up questions. Therefore, use your best judgment about your own comfort level, but remember to be judicious in what you share.

FIND YOUR ANGLE
First impressions exist on paper too! Your first paragraph is often the most important – you will either pull the reader in or bore them. Concentrate on making your first paragraph as strong as it can be. If a theme emerges that you can sustain throughout each paragraph, then great; however, don’t feel beholden to this either.

REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE
The person reading your document has most likely read hundreds of applications before yours. Applicants forget that faculty read these and are looking more for professionalism than cute stories. Try your best to avoid clichés that will make your personal statement blur together with the stack of other applicants. Clichéd statements such as, “I want to go to medical school because I like science and helping people,” are much too vague. Be as specific as you can – your reason for pursuing graduate/medical school should emerge as the logical conclusion from your detailed experiences.

GOOD GRAMMAR IS KEY
Remember basic writing tenets like using strong, active verbs and avoiding run-on sentences. It can be helpful to use spell check and to read aloud for errors like noun/verb agreement. Try to also avoid using colloquial language like “cool” too much. You want your personality to come out, but you also want to present the most polished, professional version of yourself that you can.

There isn’t one correct way to write a personal statement, especially since it should be representative of your personality, intellect and cumulative experience. For graduate school, you focus on a concise description of your past research experiences followed by a specific linking of how that relates to your interest in that specific program. The same is true for medical school, but you are highlighting a combination of both your research and clinical experiences. Take some time to be introspective during the drafting process, but be sure to seek advice and input from family, friends, colleagues, mentors and the OITE.

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Some helpful videos to check out:

What Admissions Directors Think About Getting Into Graduate School:

Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=9685&bhcp=1

Writing Personal Statements for Professional School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=11108&bhcp=1

Graduate School Overview:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=12745&bhcp=1


Preparing for the Application Season

June 3, 2013

Regardless of whether you are planning on applying to Graduate School or Professional school, a successful application requires preparation.  If you remember one word from this post, remember “Early.”  Take your exams (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) early.  Get your letters of recommendation lined up early.  Write your personal statement early.  Have someone look over your materials early.  Submit your applications early.  When you get an interview, show up early.

For those applying to graduate school:

You will want to have your GRE taken by the end of August or beginning of September.  This means you need to start studying now.  In particular, you need to go back and review your high school math.  If you don’t use, you lose it.  The chances are that you haven’t used much of what will be on the test in your four (or more) years of undergrad.  You need to take practice exams…lots of them.  Much of successful test taking is being comfortable and familiar with the format.  Reading about the format is not the same as practicing it.

So why do you need to get your GRE done so early?  So you can know whether or not to retake the exam.  If you are unsure whether your scores are strong enough for a particular program, ask the Director of that program.  Unlike Medical School, these programs are trying to recruit you.  Most of the time, the program directors will respond directly to your e-mail asking about the strength of your application.   Writing in with your scores early shows that you are prepared and organized.  Writing in late, shows just the opposite.

For those applying to professional schools:  This specific material is written for Medical School applications, but the principles apply to all professional school applications.

Submit your AMCAS as soon as possible (note, that is another way to say “Early”).  Ideally, you want to submit it with in two weeks of the opening. Do NOT wait for your MCATs.  You can always add more schools later depending on where your scores make you most competitive.  Your odds of acceptance decrease the later you submit your application.  You simply do not look prepared if your application comes in right before the terminal deadline.  Also, medical schools review applications in waves.  The sooner your application is in, the fewer competitors you have for the most number of invitations.

Once your applications are in, pay attention to your e-mail.  Even if you are on vacation, check it daily.  You want to get your secondaries turned around and back to the schools quickly.  You need to show that you are eager to get in and that you are organized enough to turn things around quickly.  If your secondary sits in your inbox for a week while you are relax on vacation, you look eager to relax on vacation and not attend medical school.

For all applicants:

Nothing is as valuable as face-to-face interactions with representatives of the schools you are applying to.  If you are in the Washington D. C. area, the NIH hosts a “Graduate and Professional School Fair” on July 17 in Bethesda.  This is really a first chance to meet admissions officers and make a strong impression.  There will be 153 programs in attendance to meet with postbacs and students as well as informational sessions geared toward specific disciplines such as med schools, dental school, pharmacy school, psychology programs, PhD programs in biomedical sciences.  If you are in the area, this really is an opportunity you do not want to miss.