How do I obtain a strong letter of recommendation/reference?

Sara's Career Tip of the Month

Hi there! I'm Sara Ayazi. As a career counselor here at the Office of Career and Professional Development, my goal is to help you navigate your career successfully! Each month I write a bite-sized tip on commonly asked career-related questions. You can visit the archive of all of my tips. Or, to receive these monthly tips via email, sign up for our email list.

Career Counselor Sara AyaziThis month’s tip is on obtaining a strong letter of recommendation or reference. Letters of recommendation are often requested for residency, scholarship, and graduate school applications, while references are generally requested when applying for employment/postdoctoral scholar positions. Letters of recommendation and references are often cited as one of the most important components of an application process.

Below are four steps to obtain a strong letter of recommendation/reference:

Step 1: The first step is to identify the skills and experiences that you would like to be reflected in your letter of recommendation/reference. For example, is the position looking for strong clinical abilities in your desired specialty, excellent basic science research skills, a commitment to working with underserved populations? Once you have identified these skills/experiences, review your professional network to determine who would be in the best position to speak to them. Examples include preceptors, attending physicians, clinical instructors, faculty, research mentors, PIs, and supervisors. Be sure to adhere to any requirements related to the letter of recommendation/reference. For example, some residency programs specifically request that one of the letters of recommendation be written by the chair of the department for that specialty. If you have questions about these requirements or who to ask to serve as a letter writer/reference, contact your mentor/advisor in your field for additional support.

Step 2: Once you have identified potential letter writers/references, the next step is to contact them to make the request. When possible, set up a time to meet with them. This will give you an opportunity to have a discussion about your goals, why you would like them to serve as a letter writer/reference, and assess their comfort level in taking on this role. There is one magical word to include in your request: strong. For example: “Based on your knowledge of my [insert relevant skills/experiences], would you feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation for me?” If they are unable to provide a letter of recommendation/reference, or you receive an indication that they may be hesitant to provide one, then identify another person in your professional network who can speak to the skills/experiences that you would like to be highlighted.

Step 3: After you have received confirmation from your letter writers/references to serve in this capacity, provide them with any necessary information that will help them with this process. For your letter writers, inform them of the deadline(s) for your applications. For your references, provide them with the approximate dates when you believe they will be contacted. In addition, they may ask for specific information when preparing the letter of recommendation/reference discussion. Examples include:

  • List of programs where you are submitting your applications
  • CV/Resume
  • Personal Statement
  • Cover Letter/Letter of Intent
  • Transcript
  • Research papers that you have co-authored

Step 4: The final step is to express gratitude to your letter writers/references. Serving as a letter writer/reference is an investment in time, and showcasing your appreciation for their efforts will display your professionalism and can strengthen your relationship with them. In addition, let them follow your adventure. Let them know the outcome of your application process, and how their support helped you!

For more guidance on this topic, check out our resources on letters of recommendation or make an appointment with our office!

Until next time!


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