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Everything I tell my clients on this subject is available for free on this page.
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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 nonspecific, that in all honesty they probably could have been written for ANY applicant.
You probably already suspect that many employers, college professors, and teachers have one letter of recommendation saved on the hard drive of their computer, and they send off virtually the same letter for every student. Sadly, it’s true. This can be scary, especially when you’re trying hard to stand out from the rest of the crowd.
Generic, general letters of this kind provide very little useful information about you. These are the letters that admissions committees refer to as “mediocre,” and they can be devastating to your candidacy. Why? Because schools think that if you couldn’t find anyone to say anything specifically good about you, maybe there is nothing specifically good to say.
Sadly, the conventional advice for combating this problem doesn’t really help.
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 nonspecific that the letter could have been written for any applicant.
Here’s what you can to do effectively combat this problem.
Whether your recommender knows you well or not, contact her — in person if possible — to offer some RESOURCES that she can use in writing your letter.
Make an appointment in advance, and when you meet with her say, “Now Dr. Lee, obviously, you can write anything you want to in this letter of recommendation. To make your job a little easier for you, though, I figured the least I could do is put together some resource materials that you could use in writing it.”
Then hand her a neat folder that includes everything she needs to make the letter writing easy, including a list of specific things you wish she would talk about in the letter. You might even say, “Here are some things I’d love for the committee to know about me, but I didn’t have room for all of them in that one-page personal statement. It would really help me if you could work in as many of these things as you can.”
Many recommenders will say at this point, “Thank you so much for giving me this! This is going to make writing your letter so easy for me!”
Of course it is! You just did the hardest work (thinking up what to write about) for them!
By the way, it’s okay for you to ask your recommender to write things about you even if she’s not been a personal eye-witness to those events. If she has simply heard some things about you, it’s okay for her to write about those things, as long as they’re true. If she hears about these true things from you, that’s no problem.
“My recommender lives 2000 miles away from me. Can I still do this?”
Yes you 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 easy 10-step process outlined below:
1) Put together a complete packet of information as described at the bottom of this page.
2) Make an exact duplicate of the packet for yourself.
3) Add a picture of yourself taken at around the time this person knew you.
4) Attach a cover letter reintroducing yourself, reminding the recommender how she knows you, and asking for the letter of recommendation.
5) Send it off using PRIORITY MAIL at the US Post Office. It will arrive in approximately two days in a somewhat impressive and urgent looking package.
6) Note to call the recommender at about 3:30 in the afternoon her time, on the exact day you expect she will be getting the package. Most people have their mail by 3:30 pm, but they have not yet gone home for the day.
7) 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 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?”
8) 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 end up trying to talk to the person while she has a whirlwind of activity going on in her office.
9) Call her promptly at the appointed time, and before you jump right in, say, “Is this a good time to talk?”
10) Have your duplicate of their packet in front of you, and refer to it as you have the above-described discussion with them.
“Can’t I just email my recommender and ask for a letter of recommendation that way?”
I don’t recommend using email to request letters of recommendation.
If your email arrives along with a massive flood of other emails (as it probably will), it can be easily lost or ignored.
Besides that though, email doesn’t make anywhere near the powerful impression of an official-looking PRIORITY MAIL package arriving in the office.
“What all should I put into the neat folder I give to my recommender?”
Besides the list of specific things you wish she would talk about (described above), the following items will also be helpful:
1. A copy of the 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. It makes perfect sense for this person to be in med 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. What we hope is that her enthusiasm and belief in you will come across strongly in her recommendation, and 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 of the forms that schools are asking your recommenders to fill out, along with links telling her where to find those forms online if necessary. Many schools, tired of reading bland, general, nonspecific letters, have developed forms that recommenders are asked to fill out. Ask the recommender to (a) fill the form out, and then (b) add a copy of their narrative letter to the form if at all possible. No form can ever express as much as a well-thought-through personal letter. Do yourself a favor and give the schools both when possible.
3. A postcard, stamped and addressed to you, that simply says, “Your letters of recommendation are officially in! Good luck. — Dr. Lee.” Ask your recommender to drop the postcard in the mail to you the same day 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 your recommender a deadline that is about three weeks from the date that you hand her your neat folder of information. Don’t give her 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.
When you have your one-on-one meeting with your recommender and you’re going through your neat folder of info, 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 June,” just respond with a different date. “How about July 1st then? Would that be better?” If she says 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 in your own calendar to contact the recommender about 7 days before that deadline. Just a brief, polite call that says, “Hi; this is ______, and you and I talked a couple of weeks ago about your writing my letter of recommendation for med 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 her in case she does have questions (people writing a truly well-thought-out, personal letter often will). In addition, though, it gives you a way to nudge her with a subtle reminder, just in case your letter has drifted to the bottom her to-do pile.
It’s far easier to do a little low-key reminder 7 days before the deadline, rather than having to call after the deadline you’ve set has been missed.
5. Any stamped, addressed envelopes they might need for mailing the letters, or else the links needed to submit the letters online.
“Is it OK for my recommender to send the same letter to every school I’m applying to?”
It’s also OK for your recommender to repeat things you’ve already talked about in your personal statement. This is no problem at all. In fact, having your recommender talk about things already in your personal statement can underscore and emphasize some of the most important themes in your application.
Before you end your meeting with the recommender, do this.
Ask your recommender what are the best addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses for getting a hold of her during the next year. You might say, “If I were to write you a letter, what address would you prefer I use?” When she gives 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 your recommender’s most current contact information. You’ll need it to do your “how’s it going” call 7 days before your deadline, and you might need it later in case a problem arises with your letter. (For instance, if some school tries to say that they never received a letter from that person.) In addition, you will need a good address so you can take this very important next step.
Say thank you!
It is very important to say “thank you” to this person for what they’ve done for you. It is very poor form to skip this step.
Thank your recommender in writing twice. Once shortly after your letters are sent to the schools, and again after you get the news of which schools have admitted you. 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 summer. 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!
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 start receiving medical school acceptances.)
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. My address is Jeannie Burlowski, P.O. Box 702, Circle Pines, MN 55014.
: – )
Make a note to yourself to add in the information on which schools you got into, and mail these thank yous off as soon as you make your final med school decision.
One final note about recommendations:
Would you like to finish off this whole process with a great deal of class, and give your recommenders warm feelings about you that will last for years, all the way until the next time you need a letter of recommendation?
Thank your recommender in a tangible way, by sending her a small gift.
Right after you get verification that her letter has been sent in, send her a gift certificate for bagels or coffee, or perhaps a nice pen. Sent along with a handwritten note, a kind gesture like this can give your thank you extra sincerity, and help your recommender 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. Yikes!”
I understand that this puts you in an awkward position. How can you write a strong letter about yourself without sounding like you’re bragging?
In reality, though, the recomender who says, “Write your own letter and then I’ll tweak it and send it in,” is actually giving you a marvelous gift.
If you do a good job on your draft of the letter, it can include every detail you can possibly think of to strengthen your candidacy.
How can you write a strong, impressive letter without sounding like you’re bragging? I suggest you use the exact same principles of logical argument that you used to create your flawlessly well-reasoned personal statement when I helped you with that.
(For a reminder of how this works, review my page entitled Personal Statement Hacks.) If doing this 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 who was writing a letter of recommendation for his own nephew.
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 read what your recommenders say about you. Scary as it may seem, I strongly suggest that you sign this waiver, and plan on not reading any of your letters before they are sent in. Let the relationship between the school and the recommender remain a confidential one. A letter you did not screen will 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 with letters of recommendation at all, I can help. Just 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 instrumental in getting me in.”
D.G., medical student, San Francisco, CA
Note: Because application advisors cannot control a student’s grades, MCAT scores, the amount and quality of volunteer experience, or how thoroughly students follow the advice offered on these pages, please understand that we cannot guarantee any individual’s acceptance to medical school.