Schools read your letters of recommendation with great care, believing that an objective outside eye can give them a great deal of helpful information about you. Unfortunately, many letters of recommendation are so bland and general, so completely non-specific, that in all honesty they probably could have been written for ANY applicant. Letters of this kind truly give very little useful information about you. These are the letters that admissions committees refer to as being “mediocre,” and they can be devastating to your candidacy.

For years, the conventional advice students have received for combating this problem has been: “choose recommenders who know you well.” That helps, certainly, but it may not be enough. It’s possible for you to get a recommender who knows you very very well, and who absolutely LOVES you, and they can STILL write a letter that is bland and general, and so completely non-specific that in all honesty the letter probably could have been written for ANY applicant. Did you know that some college professors have a letter of recommendation saved on the hard drive of their computer, and they send off virtually the same letter for every student that asks? It’s a scary prospect, isn’t it? Especially when you are trying very hard to stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Here’s one very important thing you can do to combat this problem.

Whether your recommender knows you very very well or not, contact him or her — in person if possible — to offer some RESOURCES that he or she can use in writing your letter. Make an appointment in advance, and when you meet with this person say: “Now Professor Lee, obviously, you can write anything you want to in this letter of recommendation. To make your job easier for you, though, I figured that the least I could do is put together some resource materials that you could use in writing it..”

You then hand them a neat folder that includes everything they need to make writing the letter easy, including a list of specific things you wish they would talk about. You might even say: “These are some things I’d love the committee to know about me, but I didn’t have room for them all in that one page personal statement. It would be great if you could somehow work some of them in.”

Many recommenders at this point will say: “Thank you so much for giving me this; this is going to make writing this letter so much easier.”

Of course it is! You just did a lot of the hardest work (thinking up what to write about) for them!

By the way, it’s okay to ask recommenders to write things about you even if they have not been actual eye-witnesses to those events. If they have just heard something about you, it’s okay for them to write about it. If they hear about it from you, that’s no problem.

My recommender lives 2000 miles away from me. Can I still do this?

Yes; you sure can.

An in-person meeting is far preferable to anything else you could do, but if the travel just isn’t possible, simply follow the procedures outlined below:

Put together a complete packet of information as it is described below. Make an exact duplicate of the packet for yourself. Add a picture of yourself taken at around the time that this person knew you. Attach a cover letter re-introducing yourself, reminding the recommender how they know you, and asking for the letter of recommendation. Send it off PRIORITY MAIL at the U.S. Post Office. It will arrive in approximately two days in a somewhat impressive and urgent looking package. Note to call the recommender at about 3:30 in the afternoon, their time, on the exact day you expect they will be getting the package. Most people have their mail by this time, but they have not yet gone home for the day. When you call, you might say: “Hi, this is _______. I sent you a package a couple of days ago, and I think you should have received it today. I’d like very much to talk to you about what’s in that package. I know you are probably busy right now, but could I call you back tomorrow at some time when it’s convenient, or would the next day be better?”

Make a telephone appointment with the person. This is not only polite and respectful, it also ensures that you will have the person’s full attention when you need it, and not be trying to talk to the person while he or she has a whirlwind of activity going on in their office. Call him or her promptly at the appointed time and say, before jumping right in: “Is this a good time to talk?” Have your duplicate of their packet in front of you, and refer to it as you have the discussion with them as described above.

What else should I put in that packet?

Besides a list of specific things you wish they would talk about, the following things are helpful additions to the neat packet you get to them when you ask them to write the letter.

1. A copy of your beautifully written, flawlessly well-reasoned personal statement that was part of your medical school application. This is the document that makes every reader say: “Wow. I can really see how it makes perfect sense for this person to be in medical school. I don’t even have a question about this.” That personal statement is the number one “sales” tool you have about yourself as an applicant, and it will go a long way toward helping your recommender to feel enthusiastic about your candidacy. That enthusiasm and belief in you is very likely to come across strongly to the committee, and will make a tremendous contribution to the strength of your overall application. If you need help writing a personal statement that gets this kind of reaction, click on GET HELP NOW.

2. Printed copies of any and all forms that schools are asking your recommenders to fill out, along with links telling him or her where to find those forms online if necessary. Many schools, tired of reading bland, general, non-specific letters, have developed forms that recommenders are asked to fill out. Ask the reader to (1) fill the form out, and then (2) add a copy of their narrative letter to it if possible. No form can ever express as much as a well-thought-through personal letter. Do yourself a favor and give the schools both. And yes, it’s completely OK for the recommender to say the same exact thing to every single school.

3. A postcard, stamped and addressed to you, that simply says: “Your letters of recommendation are officially in! Good luck. — Professor Lee” Ask your recommender to drop the postcard in the mail to you the same day he or she gets the letters in. You’ll appreciate having word as to exactly when this happened.

4. A piece of paper that simply says: “My deadline for this letter is…” Give them a deadline that is about three weeks from the date that you hand them the packet. Don’t give them the ACTUAL deadline that the school has given you. For your peace of mind, you really want the letter in and done long before that last minute deadline.

I suggest that when you have your one-on-one contact with the recommender to give him or her this packet, point out this deadline sheet and say: “I really need to have this done by (say the date). Do you think that will be a problem?” If they grimace and say: “That’s a bad week for me. I’ll be in Europe the first two weeks of September,” just respond with a different date. “How about October 1st then? Would that be better?” If they say yes, take your pen and cross out the deadline you had on the sheet, and write in the new one.

While we are on this subject, I suggest that you make a note to yourself in your own appointment book to contact the recommender about ten days before that deadline. Just give a brief polite call and say: “Hi; this is ______ and we talked a couple of weeks ago about your writing my letter of recommendation for medical school. I’m just calling to see how everything’s going and to see if you have any questions for me.”

This makes you available to them in case they do have questions (people writing a truly well-thought-out, personal letter often will). In addition, though, it gives you a way to give him or her a subtle reminder… just in case your letter has drifted to the bottom of his or her “to do” pile. It’s far easier to do a little low-key reminder at this point, rather than having to call AFTER the deadline has been missed.

5. Any stamped addressed envelopes they might need for mailing the letters, though using an online service such as is safer, faster, and makes the regular mail unnecessary.

Before you leave the meeting with the recommender:

Ask your recommender what are the best addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses for getting a hold of him or her during the next year. You might say: “If I were to write you a letter, what address would you prefer I use?” When they give it, ask: “Will this address still be the right one, even if I am writing you next year at some time?”

Be sure you have their current contact information; you’ll need it to do your “how’s it going” call ten days before your deadline, and you might need it later in case a problem arises with your letter. (For instance, imagine that some school tries to say that they never received a letter from that person.) In addition, you will need a good address so that you can:

Say thank you!

It is VERY IMPORTANT that you say “thank you” to this person for what they’ve done for you. It is VERY POOR FORM to skip this step.

I suggest that you thank the person in writing TWICE, once shortly after your letters are sent to the schools, and AGAIN after you get the news on which schools you’ve gotten into. This second “thank you” might say:

Dear Professor Lee,

I just wanted to thank you again for writing one of my medical school letters of recommendation last fall. I applied to these nine schools: ______ . I got into these three ______ and I’ve decided to accept admission at ______. Thanks again, I could not have done this without you.

Your signature

You might even consider getting this letter ready right now, so that it’s all ready to mail as soon as you know which school you’re going to. (You may find yourself way too busy to think about this once you actually receive your medical school acceptance.)

Prepare one of these letters and their accompanying envelopes for each of your recommenders, one for your favorite MCAT instructors if you took a commercial prep course, and one for me, Jeannie Burlowski, if I helped you at all with this process. : – ). Make a note to yourself to add in the information on what schools you got into, and mail them off as soon as you make your decision.

One final note about recommendations:

Would you like to finish off this whole process with a great deal of class, and give your recommender warm feelings about you as you part company?

You might thank your recommender for what they’ve done for you in a TANGIBLE way, by sending them some sort of small gift.

Right after you get verification that their letters are in, you could send them a gift certificate for bagels or coffee, or perhaps a very nice pen. Sent along with a handwritten note, this kind of a gesture can give your “thank you” extra sincerity, and help your recommenders to have good memories of you for years to come.

My recommender asked me to write the letter myself, and then give it to him to tweak and send in. This puts me in an awkward position! How can I write a strong letter about myself without sounding like I’m bragging?”

The recommender who says “Write your own letter and then I will tweak it and send it in,” is actually giving you a marvelous gift. If you do a good job on this letter, it can include every single detail you can possibly think of to strengthen your candidacy. How can you write a strong, impressive letter without sounding like you are bragging? Use the exact same principles of logical argument you used to create your flawlessly well-reasoned personal statement when I helped you with that. (For a reminder of how we do this, click on one specific principle.) If it still seems difficult, ask for my help. I’ve helped write letters of recommendation that were later proudly signed by heads of state, highly placed business executives, and even a Yale Medical School professor. Just click on GET HELP NOW.

About the waiver

Note that many schools will ask you to sign a statement waiving the legal right you have to inspect your records and read what your recommenders say about you. Scary as it may seem, I strongly suggest that you sign the waiver, and plan on not reading the letter. Let the relationship between the school and the recommender remain a confidential one. A letter that you did not screen first can carry a great deal more weight than one you read before sending it in.

Good luck as you do all you can to get outstanding letters of recommendation! If you need any help at all, click on GET HELP NOW.

“With Jeannie’s help, my letter of recommendation from the MD/PhD. I did research under was absolutely outstanding. It was clear, specific, convincing, and rich with detail. ‘Wow,’ he said when I handed it to him. ‘Are you sure you want to be a doctor and not some kind of a writer?’ Then he smiled and said: ‘I’ll be happy to send this in exactly as it is.’ I think that letter was instrumenal in getting me in.”

D.G., medical student, San Francisco, CA