Tips for Writing a Strong Letter of Recommendation:
Only write letters for applicants you can honestly recommend.
Regardless of style, your recommendations must be credible to the reader. If you cannot earnestly write a reasonably strong letter, inform the applicant that you are not confident that your letter would support the application well, and refuse. If you are required to write letters because of your role, be sure to be honest with candidates about what their letter will convey.
Create a unique template and use it for all letters.
This will make it much easier to write letters, especially during inevitable crunch times, when multiple letters are due simultaneously. This also allows you to look back on your own letters to remember and distinguish applicants from each other. Expect that you will receive follow up calls about your letters, asking for more candor about certain applicants then can be given in a typical letter. Using certain phrases or words consistently will allow you to read between the lines more effectively. You want for your letters to be positive, but you also want to make sure you don’t lose credibility by recommending an applicant of questionable quality or character.
State how long you have known the applicant and in what capacity.
Is it a 4 or 6 week sub-internship rotation, or is this a student you have advised and mentored for 4 years of medical school? If writing a letter for a partner or community colleague, describe your relationship to that person. Is she your always reliable backup when you are out of town? Is he a more senior partner in your group who has mentored you and other junior partners?
Describe the applicant’s unique strengths.
Nearly everyone in the applicant pool is smart, hard-working, and has good grades and exam scores. If this is one of the best (residents, fellows, etc) that you have ever worked with in your 20 years as a faculty member, clearly state that. This will be a powerful statement, especially considering the competition. Use these types of sentences rarely; not every student or resident can be one of the best ever. Include specific feedback from the residents on the team if writing a letter for a student where you are faculty.
Focus on personality traits.
Their CV, grades and exam scores say a lot about their academic accomplishments. Don’t simply summarize the CV. What the evaluators are looking for is a picture of the person behind those achievements. How does the applicant fit in among their peers and how do they interact with staff at the hospital? How are they with patients? Do they take initiative to take care of things without being asked? How prepared are they for surgical cases? What is their level of enthusiasm for clinic? How does this person handle stress and conflict? Quiet and nice are unfortunately usually perceived as negatives in the competitive field of orthopaedic surgery; try to find better adjectives.
Describe the applicant’s role in research.
If they have done research with you, describe their role on the project. Did they do all the biomechanical testing or Western blots themselves? Did they do a background literature search? Did they draft the final paper? Has it been presented or published anywhere, and if so, were they involving submitting and/or presenting? Most applicants are encouraged to get involved with a research project, but the level of contribution, and understanding of the research question, varies a lot.
Keep it professional.
This should go without saying, but even when you are writing a letter for someone you know well personally and professionally, find a way to focus on the parts that are relevant to professional success. Perhaps this person has an adventurous spirit and untiring energy? Perhaps he/she a magnetic personality and quickly adapt to many different personalities and surroundings?
Anticipate and address potential concerns.
If there are potential concerns in an applicant’s file about which you have some knowledge, this may be a good chance to address them. Did the resident take an additional year to finish residency due to a subdural hemorrhage? Did they fail their Boards the first time and have to retake the exam? Is this a partner who was treated for alcohol dependence? These things are going to be disclosed in their application and the applicant will likely have to explain the circumstances. It helps to have an independent third party support their argument that the issue has been addressed and is no longer a concern if that is the case and you have sufficient familiarity to do so.
Make a connection if possible.
Address the program director, chairman, or managing partners by name. If you have friends in the department where they are applying, say so. If you know the program is outstanding in trauma and the applicant has showed genuine interest in pursuing a career in trauma, say so. If you would like for her to come back and be your partner after fellowship, say so, and add how the training will help compliment the skills and services you can already offer your patients (everyone likes a compliment).
Offer to be available for questions.
It’s hard to anticipate what questions may come up at interviews. With regards to fellowship applicants, the reader may want to follow up with you to see where the applicant stands at different times throughout the process. Offer to be contacted at a later date regarding the candidate.
Click here to view Letter of Recommendation Template 1
Click here to view Letter of Recommendation Template 2