Best Practices for Letters of Recommendation
- Letters of recommendation must be signed, dated, and on official letterhead.
- Unless explicitly asked by the student, do not refer to a specific school (e.g., "applicant to Penn Med"). Instead, refer to a general program (e.g., "applicant to medical school").
- Letters of recommendation should be addressed to the attention of a general admissions board (e.g., "Dear Admissions Committee:") and not Career Services.
Advice for Writing Letters of Recommendation
- When a student asks you to write a letter of recommendation, you are not obligated to do so. Decide whether you can write enthusiastically enough to be helpful to the student. If your honest evaluation may handicap a student, and if you are uncomfortable writing favorably, you have the right to decline a student's request for a letter.
- Try to be as specific as possible. General descriptions of a student's positive qualities are not as useful as detailed examples that illustrate the student's abilities and achievements. A statement like "John is a brilliant thinker" is quite flattering, but it becomes more convincing if more details are added: "John is a brilliant thinker. For my class at Penn, he submitted an extraordinary fifty-page term paper on women and medicine in early modern England. After determining what practices were available to women in that period, he analyzed the representations of female physicians in the drama of the English Renaissance. His literary interpretation was original and elegantly written."
- Specificity is important in discussing non-academic matters, too. Take, for instance, the following statement: "Alice's commitment to the Narberth Ambulance Squad and to the people we serve is extraordinary." Medical schools would find this assessment more useful if information were added, such as: "Alice's commitment to the Narberth Ambulance Squad and to the people we serve is extraordinary. While most of our volunteers live within the township, Alice commutes 45 minutes each way from Philadelphia by bus and by train for each of her shifts. And her record of attendance is perfect. This conscientious behavior is typical of the way she conducts herself."
- Try to compare the student to others you have known in a similar capacity. Statements like, "In terms of intellectual talent and drive, Parikh ranks in the top 10% of all undergraduate students I have taught over the past seven years," can help an admissions committee assess an applicant's talents and aptitudes in a relevant context.
- Admissions committees care very much about an applicant's personal qualities. Recently, the Association of American Medical Colleges endorsed 15 Core Competencies that successful applicants should demonstrate. While it is not required that all competencies be addressed in a letter of recommendation, they can be used as a helpful guide.
Family Education Rights & Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA): Federal law stipulates that students can see letters of recommendation unless they waive their right in advance. The student's decision as to whether your letter will be confidential or non-confidential will be designated on the form he or she gives to you. Most students choose to waive their right. If you, as the author of a confidential letter, wish to show a copy to the student, that is your right.
When Career Services receives a confidential letter of recommendation, we maintain its confidentiality. We will not show it to the student, divulge its contents, or recommend that a student use or not use it. However, at a student's request, we will review a recommendation to say whether it is appropriate for a specific purpose. For instance, if you conclude a letter by saying, "Fang will make an outstanding lawyer," we will indicate to a student who asks that the letter is not appropriate for an application to medical school. We make it clear to students that our definition of "appropriate" is a very narrow one and does not reflect the degree to which the recommendation is favorable.
The time you spend writing letters of recommendation for our pre-health students is valuable. If there is anything we at Career Services can to do help, or if you have any questions, please contact us at 215-898-1789 or our Credentials Office.