Letters of recommendation (LORs) are an important part of your career, whether it is in support of a job application, an application to a professional development or other program opportunity, a nomination for an award or recognition, or another purpose for which a peer, mentor, or supervisor must summarize and evaluate your performance and qualifications in narrative form.
The first step in soliciting letters of recommendation is to know the requirements of the organization who is requesting them. Often, two letters may be required, but this may vary. Some organizations may not request a letter of recommendation but instead have an electronic or paper form for a recommender to complete that attests to your abilities and competencies in a structured format. In any case, you should only supply only what is required and requested specifically for the position for which you are applying.
Next, you need to determine who will write the LOR. Informative letters are generally written by those who have first-hand knowledge of your abilities and potential. As a student, resident, or fellow, this is often faculty in your training program. You should carefully reflect on who you have worked with who possesses special knowledge of your qualifications. In other words, this does not necessarily mean that the head of a division or section chief will be the best authors of your letters, unless you have a working relationship with them and they are indeed best suited to describe your qualifications. For example, a very brief letter containing general statements of competency from a chief or chair probably is not as helpful as a more lengthy letter from a faculty member who worked closely with you over a long period of time. Occasionally, a potential employer will specifically request a letter from chief or chair; if so, this request should be honored, but otherwise stick with the people who know you best.
Give your LOR writers enough time to write a good letter! As soon as you know you need a letter, and identify them to write it, notify them as soon as possible.
How can you pick someone who will write a good letter? There are several options. You can ask your program director to review your evaluation file with you. Look to see who wrote the most outstanding evaluations, paying particular attention to those accompanied by supportive written comments. This faculty person is likely to write a good reference letter. Occasionally, if faculty know that you are interviewing for a position, they will spontaneously offer to write a letter, and this ordinarily is a very good indication of a supportive letter. If the signals remain unclear, you can request a letter in such a way that it increases your chances of getting a good letter. For example, consider this method of soliciting a letter: "Dr. Brown, do you think you could write a very supportive letter of recommendation for a practice position I am considering for next year?" When requested in this fashion, your needs are clear, and you have left the door open for Dr. Brown to demur if a very supportive letter will not be forthcoming. This is much preferable to: "Dr. Brown, will you write me a letter of recommendation?" In this situation, Dr. Brown may well agree to write a letter, but it may be mediocre, and then both you and Dr. Brown are boxed in with no alternatives.
It helps to make an appointment to discuss your letter to make sure that you have dedicated time to discuss what you need and how you think that they can best help you. Sometimes, an appointment might not be possible, so a phone conversation or clearly written email exchange can be sufficient. If possible, give your letter writers at least three weeks’ notice. Always make sure they are aware of your deadline and any important procedural considerations. For example, if they are expected to submit the LOR directly to the prospective employer, then you should provide a contact person, email address, or mailing address, along with the deadline for submission. Also, it is often good practice to waive your right to view the letter before its submission, as that can demonstrate confidence and trust in your LOR writer and their perception of your qualifications. If needed, you can follow up with your LOR writer shortly before the deadline as a reminder and request for an update, but it’s important to have moderation in your email follow-up messages so as not to add extra email burden to your LOR writer. This is appreciated by busy faculty and preceptors who often have multiple other responsibilities.
Can you influence what is in your letter? Not only can you, but it is in your best interest to do so. There are three things you can do to create a better letter, and all three will be appreciated by the person writing the letter.
- Provide the writer with a copy of your CV or resume. This information can be used to add the detail to the letter not otherwise evident from previous interactions with you.
- Highlight on the CV or resume, or include in a cover letter, special attributes or qualifications you think might be emphasized in the recommendation. This might include special training in a procedure, extra languages, administrative skills, research achievements (if applying for an academic medicine position, this may be attractive to mention), or other competency that enhances your desirability as a new employee or partner.
- It is perfectly legitimate to meet with your program director and copy portions of your evaluation file for your reference writers. Remember, very few faculty have access to your evaluation file, and providing information that confirms and strengthens their good opinion of you will result in a stronger letter.
Be cautious in situations where a LOR writer might ask you to draft a letter that they can modify. This is not a typical practice, but sometimes is done, for example, in situations where you may have a particularly good relationship with the LOR writer. If this is done, you should be realistic in your self-assessment when drafting the letter, and defer completely all further revisions and finalization of the letter to the LOR writer, who is ultimately signing the letter and is therefore responsible for the content of the final signed letter.
After the LOR is submitted, it is usually considered good form to follow up your request with a thank you card or email. It’s also nice for the LOR writer to hear whether their efforts on your behalf have been successful. Keep them informed about the job and your plans. You never know when you may need their help again!