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Getting sued if you write bad LoR?

Discussion in 'Pre-Medical - MD' started by BigKurz, Feb 20, 2007.

  1. BigKurz

    BigKurz Member
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    Hey everyone,

    I'm not sure if there's any truth to this, but someone I know--who is generally VERY knowledgeable about the med school app process--said that it is possible for a writer to be sued by a student for whom they wrote a LoR if it is deemed that the letter prevented them from being accepted into medical school.

    There's a long story to go with this that I am not going to give, but suffice to say that I think it's ridiculous that this could occur. Has anyone else heard of this? Isn't the writer obligated to give their accurate opinion? Isn't the onus on the student to select someone who WOULD write a good letter?

    Thoughts?
     
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  2. bbabul01

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    You can sue anyone for anything you want. Even if they waived their right to sue. The question is whether anything will come of it. Yeah, if the applicant gets their letter and it says "don't accept this person ever" you can probably make a case about intent to ruin someone's life. But there are way too many what-ifs to make this a worthwhile conversation.
     
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  3. OP
    OP
    BigKurz

    BigKurz Member
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    Well, I'm asking the guy to find me hard evidence of the story, because according to him, the student won.

    I don't believe it myself, but am intrigued nonetheless.
     
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  4. Tired Pigeon

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    Don't you usually have to waive your right to see the letter? So how would you know that it was bad? Just curious.
     
  5. armybound

    armybound urologist.
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    Not really on topic, but why would someone write a bad letter? If someone came to me and I didn't recommend them, I'd just tell them I won't do it instead of writing a bad letter.
     
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  6. bbabul01

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    I can imagine that some ass prof could feel the need to mess with someone by writing a derogatory letter. And then the student would find out because I'm sure some schools would bring it to his attention. The tough part would be proving that it was the letter that in fact didn't get you into med school. Get the hard facts, then come back. I believe it, but I guarantee there is a lot more to the story than he is leading on to.
     
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  7. OP
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    BigKurz

    BigKurz Member
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    But even so, is it true then that the professor SHOULD be punished for that?

    I asked before, and i'll ask again. Is the onus on the professor to write a good letter or just reject writing one, or is it on the student to select a professor they think WILL write a good one?

    What is the point of the letters if all of them are going to be positive? If a prof. is asked to give an honest opinion--and it happens to be that they do NOT feel they should be a doctor or whatever--should that blame be placed on the prof?
     
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  8. bbabul01

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    Both. Student and writer have a responsibility.

    The student should pick writers that can write them the best letters.

    But, it is common practice that if you can't say anything nice, you don't say anything at all. Giving negative references is immature and immoral, mainly because it's just your opinion, but can have detrimental effects. No comment, or, I can't write you a letter is the most appropriate response. It's the same when renting an apartment, if previous landlords can't give good references, they're just not supposed to comment, it's not their job to judge you.

    Letters should be honest. But honestly positive, not negative.
     
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  9. Droopy Snoopy

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    What is the point indeed? I think it's just another traditional hoop to jump through, or a way to weed out those socially inept applicants who couldn't find three people out of several dozen instructors to form a decent enough relationship with to write a few words of reference. I think the burden rests on the student to choose wisely. My undergrad didn't require us to waive the right to view the letter(s), but it's pretty standard to do so since they include your choice in the packet.
     
  10. soeagerun2or

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    Yes, you waive your right to view the letter or file that is kept on you. This is part of the freedom of information act stuff that came out in the 1970s as fallout from Watergate and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Essentially, you have the right to view any public file kept on you but signing the waiver allows them to keep this information from you.

    It does not, however, preclude you from viewing the letter/file. Essentially if you get a hold of it you can and should read it.
     
  11. ame2entre

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    I had a roomate who was applying to dental school and he was going to ask a teacher for a LOR. But before he did he talked to one of his friends who was the teacher's assistant. The TA told him to get somebody else because this teacher had screwed over a few other students on their LORs.
    My brother also got screwed over on a dental LOR from a professor. He should of had more than a few schools to choose from, but only got in at one school.
    Even though it can be tempting when you have a pretty good idea that the LOR harmed your chances of acceptance, in the end lawsuits like that do a lot more harm than good. You just have to make sure that you know the professor and that they have a good idea what you expect. Like it was mentioned before, if they plan on tearing you apart, they should just decline.
     
  12. Non-TradTulsa

    Non-TradTulsa Senior Member - Resident
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    Giving a negative reference is neither immature nor immoral if the writer believes that the student in question would be a hazard to patients as a physician. You know, getting into medical school is not just about the applicant - it is also about the profession and it is about future patients. It's better to ask a professor, "would you be able to write me a positive LOR?" That gives the applicant a chance to back away if the answer is, "no."

    I would think a lawsuit against a letter-writer could succeed in only one circumstance: a letter that was demonstrably factually incorrect. Or, perhaps, a letter so willfully skewed that malice was obvious. But, a writer who simply believes that a student has either poor character or insufficient maturity to be a physician is entitled to his opinion - and would be in the clear.
     
  13. braluk

    braluk SDN Surgerynator
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    I didnt read the response so I may be echoing the sentiments here.

    One of your responsibilities before asking a LOR writer to write the actual LOR is to ask if he or she can write you a strong letter. Granted, the writer should say if he or she can or cannot write a strong one, but I was always taught to ask every writer of mine if it will be strong. Now if the prof led the student on, that may be an entirely different story but I would think out of courtesy, if a professor is going to badmouth you, he or she should step down as a letter writer. Not sure if you could sue (libel?).
     
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  14. DreamyKid

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    wow that would really REALLY suck. I think legally the student can make a case. The professor is deliberately sabotaging the student, who knows why. Maybe he overheard the kid say he's fat and ugly. But regardless, he should just say no instead of purposely writing a bad one.
     
  15. TexasFool

    TexasFool Senior Member
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    I think that the problem is that one person might find it to be his opinion that another person would not be a good doctor or should not go to medical school. The problem is that our own personal opinions may not be the absolute truth and thus the best thing to do in a LOR of a student that you don't like is to just give a non-personal and bland statement, because if a prof doesn't like a student I don't personally trust that the student is actually a bad person. If someone wrote bad things about me in an LOR because they personally didn't like me, I'd sue.
    I don't trust any one person to determine if a student should become a doctor or not.
     
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  16. Dr.Inviz

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    How about a premed advisor who writes a bad committee letter on your behalf because she's a half-assed beeyotch?

    I found out when I went to my 1st interview ... needless to say, wasn't pretty.
     
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  17. armybound

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    had the same thing happen here. i had a lot of good recs from physicians and professors that knew me, but my pre-med advisor was not impressed by my ECs (which is what he based his rec on), so my letter was less than stellar.

    LORs are tough.. you might know a professor and have performed well in their class, but you never know how good their letter will be. you don't know if they're holding any mistakes you've made against you.
     
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  18. Dr.Inviz

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    Yeah, the only reason I even got into a school (a DO school) was because somehow they never received my committee letter. Had 2 science prof's fax over their letters and voila, acceptance. I was rejected at 2 MD and 2 DO schools because of the committee letter. I still have 1 more MD and 1 more DO school to go, but they each have already received my committee letter. The MD school left is my #1 option and hopefully 6 stellar letters will outweight the committee letter (2 physicians, 3 professors, and my research mentor who's a PhD), oh well ... :rolleyes:

    Pre-med advisors shouldn't have so much power in the process, most are reject hippies anyways.
     
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  19. kidthor

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    The only claim one would have would be for libel, and the professor would have to be making untrue statements that you can prove are untrue. Aside from that, the professor can give all the negative opinions he wants. In any event, that'd all be a waste of time, and I seriously doubt that this would be productive in any way.





     
  20. njrpeter

    njrpeter New Member
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    It's called a letter of RECOMMENDATION, isn't it? So shouldn't a professor only write such a letter if s/he is actually RECOMMENDING one to medical schools?

    When one asks for an LOR, it should be obvious that if the professor can't honestly recommend that person, then s/he shouldn't write the letter. I'm not asking for a performance/personality review - I'm asking to be recommended. If you don't feel you can recommend me, then don't.
     
  21. gary5

    gary5 Senior Member
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    Perhaps the world would be a better place if we put all lawyers in jail, even if we have to let some criminals out to make room.
     
  22. Law2Doc

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    Letters are supposed to be the writer's candid view of the student. If they think the student doesn't belong in med school, while the nice thing to do would be to simply turn down writing the letter in the first place, the ethical (moral) thing to do, once they've decided to do the letter is for them to be honest and tell the schools what they think. It may burn the student, but at least the school keep some integrity. I've known profs in other fields who have been burned writing strong letters of recommendation for folks who went on to commit academic or legal infractions at their subsequent schools/careers -- it can impact their credibility and hurt the school. The fact that you are signing a waiver attests to the fact that they are expected to be openly candid without fear of retribution (since they see you won't be seeing it). That is the whole point of the waiver -- to let them feel more comfortable being honest. Your job, as student, is to figure out who will give you a good rec.

    And FYI, landlords OFTEN give bad references for bad tenants -- I don't know where your "no comment" notion comes from. The whole "if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all" is important in terms of social manners, but when someone is given as a reference, for a school, a landlord or whatever, the whole manners thing is waived -- this person is supposed to be honest and say what he thinks. They are specifically being asked their opinion. Some LOR forms even use the word opinion.
     
  23. sejin8642

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    I thought LOR stands for Letter Of RECOMMANDATION. If one who is asked to write a LOR for a student do not find any good side of the student, then s/he should not write a LOR for the student at first.
     
  24. Law2Doc

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    You will find throughout your life (not just for med school purposes) that "letter of recommendation" is a term of art that can mean something far from positive, notwithstanding that it has the word recommend in it.
     
  25. Towelie

    Towelie Resident Towel
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    I agree that an LOR should not be written if the writer doesn't have positive things to say. However, to think that one could sue over such a thing is ridiculous. It happens all the time, especially in the academic world.
     
  26. deuist

    deuist Stealthfully Sarcastic
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  27. Captain Fantastic

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    Around my school the professors write "Letters of Evaluation" and not "Letters of Recommendation." The professor isn't necessarily recommending/not recommending you for medical school. They are mearly writing their evaluation of your candidacy.

    Anyway, the thought of asking someone to write their opinion on you and then taking them to court over it is rediculous. What's the argument? That by writing the LOR the professor entered into a contract to write only nice things? I don't get it.
     
  28. ClockworkDoc

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    At my school, the Committee Letter is a compilation of comments made by all professors that have taught you. I am sure that there are a couple of profs who did not really like me or my lackadaisical attitude toward their class. One time a interviewer told me about some negative comments in one of my letters. It said that I do not work well in groups. I really have no idea how a professor would know that based on the limited experience he or she had with us. I would really like to get hold of my committee letter so I could see who wrote that and sue him or her.
     
  29. gujuDoc

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    And hence the problem with the american legal system. :thumbdown: :thumbdown:

    As per the situation, this is even more ridiculous then the person who posted about wanting to sue the AAMC.

    There is a reason they say to know your letter writers well before you get a letter from them. And yes there have been stories of people getting bad things in their letter without their knowledge. So don't assume you know someone and just ask anyone for a letter.
     
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  30. gujuDoc

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    The voice of reason!!!:thumbup: :thumbup: :thumbup:
     
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  31. johankriek

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    back in the mid nineties I didnot geta committee letter. It was too many hoops to jump through. I just had 3-4 faculty members write letters for me and I personally asked them if i could read them. If they wouldnt let me read the letters then I would not let them writeit. All of them let me read it.

    Yous hould never waive your rights to read letters. NEVER.
     
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  32. notdeadyet

    notdeadyet Still in California
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    Though to speak to the OP's original question, you can be sued for providing a bad reference, at least in the private realm.

    Two large companies I have worked for (both in California) specifically required that supervisors not give bad references/recommendations. We were allowed to not comment on an employee's performance, but were not allowed to give any negative feedback or criticism in a reference. This was due to past lawsuits in the state.
     
  33. foofish

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    I know this has happened with in the business world with references (so these days often a "bad" reference is when someone will only confirm the candidate's dates of employment), but I've never heard of it in terms of applying to school....
     
  34. Law2Doc

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    Well then they actually were not sued for the bad reference, they were sued for breaching the rule. I know it sounds semantic but suing for a breach of administrative process/contract is very different than the libel type suit the OP was suggesting. The former has less to do with what was said and more to do with the writer breaking the companies explicit rules. Generally no such rules apply to employees of academic settings. As I've mentioned before, I've known (law) professors who got raked over the coals writing positive letters for folks who later proved themselves to be seriously dishonest and criminally unethical, so profs tend to be as honest as possible, to not put themselves in a jam.

    Basically, if you ask someone to write their opinion of you in an LOR, and then even further waive the right to see it (giving implicit agreement for them to be candid), then you are simply SOL in terms of suing them successfully. The only exception I can think of would be if they made up facts, and those facts constituted defamation (eg. if they called you a slut and a thief, assuming neither was true), or bad letters written in association with sexual harrassment. But saying they didn't think highly of you is not defamation, and you will not be able to bring a suit that will survive dismissal (and probably will be charged all the court costs involved in the suit, if not formally sanctioned).
     
  35. EMH

    EMH ARNG - MC
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    I didn't read all responses but I'll chime in what I know about this. While taking a HR class I was taught that if you ever have to give a job reference for anyone that if you are tempted to say anything negative that you should refrain or just make factual statements with no objectivity. You're safe saying that he was late to work on average twice a week but you shouldn't say anything opinionated like he was lazy, smelled of cabbage, and you think he was stealing pens.
     
  36. Law2Doc

    Law2Doc 5K+ Member
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    This humor from the web seemed appropriate on the point:

    Letter of Recommendation

    While working with Mr. Xxxxxx, I have always found him
    working studiously and sincerely at his table without idling or
    gossiping with colleagues in the office. He seldom
    wastes his time on useless things. Given a job, he always
    finishes the given assignment in time. He is always
    deeply engrossed in his official work, and can never be
    found chitchatting in the canteen. He has absolutely no
    vanity in spite of his high accomplishment and profound
    knowledge of his field. I think he can easily be
    classed as outstanding, and should on no account be
    dispensed with. I strongly feel that Mr. Xxxxxx should be
    pushed to accept promotion, and a proposal to administration be
    sent away as soon as possible.

    Employer

    -----------------------------------------------------------------

    A second note following the report:

    XXXXXX WAS PRESENT WHEN I WAS WRITING THE REPORT MAILED TO YOU TODAY. KINDLY
    READ ONLY THE ALTERNATIVE LINES 1,3,5,7,... FOR MY TRUE ASSESSMENT OF HIM.

    REGARDS,


    Employer


    :)
     
  37. dantt

    dantt Member
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    One of my grad student friends once told me a story about a professor of his who caught his undergraduate researcher stealing equipment. He didn't say anything to the student. When the time came to write his LoR, he said what needed to be said. Would the world be a better place if the professor had declined to write the LoR and the student got somebody else to recommend him?

    Dunno.
     
  38. Non-TradTulsa

    Non-TradTulsa Senior Member - Resident
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    I'm being a crabby, crotchety old guy here, but why does your generation seem to uniformly assume that personal opinions have no validity? I see that all the time. Before I went to medical school and lived in the business world, I have fired-canned-deprived a person of his livelihood-damaged his future career - more than one time - based on absolutely nothing more than my own little personal opinion. There are times when personal opinion counts, and can have a significant impact on someone else's life. A responsible person uses that power very carefully and only after a lot of consideration - but don't underestimate the power of one opinion if that person has a position of responsibility and trust.
     
  39. notdeadyet

    notdeadyet Still in California
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    Totally agree. I'd be willing to bet that anyone who has been a manager/executive in business will agree with this: given the choice of hiring a great-on-paper candidate out of the ether or hiring a pretty-good-on-paper candidate that a colleague you respect recommends, you go with the latter every time.

    Anyone can look good on paper and it just doesn't tell a damn thing about the quality of the individual. A personal recommendation does. It may be subjective, but so are people...
     
  40. EMH

    EMH ARNG - MC
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    Actually something else I learned in my HR class is that there is really nothing that interviewers do (refrences, interview, resume, testing, etc..) that gives a strong prediction on the quality of a candidate as an employee.
     
  41. 45408

    45408 aw buddy
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    This would be why one of the references that my brother called when checking out a possible employee said that the previous employee was in the "top 70% of employees." ;) It's certainly not a negative comment, but anyone with some discernment would realize that this employee would be a gamble.



    As for my LOR's, I asked professors that I KNEW would give me a positive recommendation, or else I would ask them if they would write me a strong letter of recommendation.
     
  42. Creightonite

    Creightonite Senior Member
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    I think people confuse something. I think people confuse something. There two basic types of negatice letters:

    1) lying about person bad performance at work, school, etc ---> Lawsuit
    2) telling the truth about person's so-so performance at work, school, etc ---> wont go anywhere in court because it is just an opinion based on real facts.

    Is it ethical for a faculty to agree to write a LOR even though you are not happy about a person? That's another question.
     
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  43. deuist

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    Doesn't matter if you think that the case won't go far in court. You can still get sued and will have to spend over a thousand dollars in attorney's fees to get the lawsuit dropped.
     
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  44. Law2Doc

    Law2Doc 5K+ Member
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    If there is no merit to the case (i.e. it "won't go far in court"), in most states, the side bringing the suit will frequently have to pay attorneys' fees and the person sued will have basically no expenses. In motions to dismiss, lawyers routinely request attorneys fees and costs. You can cost yourself thousands of dollars suing without tenable grounds. While people on here like to claim that anyone can sue on anything, the truth of the matter is often the plaintiff pays for baseless claims. It is only the nonfrivolous claims that are going to cost a defendant. (Of course folks in pre-allo have a very different view of frivolity than the courts, but I suspect that suing someone for their opinion after you requested they provide it is going to measure up).

    I can tell you that people out there do sometimes do give bad recommendations/references and that the grounds on which to successfully sue are really quite limited. Lawyers/ law firms routinely give letters of recommendation for former employees, and some are less than flattering. I assure you that attorneys are people as attuned to potential legal liability as you get, and they seem not to be concerned about honestly tearing someone a new one. As long as it is a statement of opinion, not assertion of specific, non-true facts, there is no real liability. In fact, there is more liability in the employment setting if you give an inaccurate recommendation -- ie if you say someone is honest when you know he isn't, and then he eg. embezzles.
     
  45. Samoa

    Physician Pharmacist 10+ Year Member

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    Back when interviewing and hiring people was part of my job, as long as the person is basically qualified on paper, I would ignore their paper qualifications and whatever anyone else said about them, and decide based on my own impression of them. But then, I generally can distinguish between a good talker and the real deal. It seems like most other people are not very good at doing so.
     
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  46. Law2Doc

    Law2Doc 5K+ Member
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    Many adcoms have more experience at this than anyone, as they see hundreds of folks trying to gain admission year after year. Few private sector companies interview as many people for the same job. Thus I wouldn't underestimate the abilities of schools to distinguish who is a good talker and the real deal. But certainly, if a prof goes out of his way to provide a less than stellar LOR, that is pretty telling.
     
  47. Samoa

    Physician Pharmacist 10+ Year Member

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    I agree--the faculty on the adcom at my school are pretty sharp, but most professors don't serve on the admissions committee.
     
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  48. njbmd

    njbmd Guest
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    Since I teach a course that is offered in the Fall semester of Junior year (for undergraduates), I clearly state my requirements for writing a letter of recommendation in my syllabus. They go along the lines of this:

    • You must earn a final grade of B+ or higher in this class.
    • You must submit a list of medical/dental schools that you are applying to (expect to apply to) and a personal statement.
    • You must schedule an appointment to meet with me no later than two weeks into the Spring semester or the semester following your class or rotation.
    • You must submit a resume or CV
    • You must submit an address and information on how the letter will be used if not going to the pre-med/dental committee
    • You must meet with me for 30 minutes to one hour after all of the above requirements are met at which time I will agree or not agree to write a letter of recommendation for you.

    Students may make an appointment with my secretary and I spend at least 30 minutes to an hours interviewing them myself (I do sit on a couple of admissions committees and I do participate in residency interviews) after receipt of all of the materials.

    In return, I will write a letter within one week that will be sent to (medical/dental school or pre-med/dental committee) or prospective employer/dean of medical school for residency candidates. I do not send copies to the student.

    I place all information including my impressions during the interview, in a file along with a copy of the letter. These files are kept (under lock and key).I will not honor requests to write letters for people after more than one semester has passed between the time that they took my class or rotated on my service. If there are any questions or problems, I have the files available. I am often called by Deans of Admission for information (verification) or opinions about candidates for whom I have written letters.

    To this date, after more than ten years of teaching at the undergraduate, graduate and medical/dental school level, I have yet to receive any lawsuits (or threats).

    By doing the above, I am able to get your letters done in a very timely manner with as much information as possible. It also helps for you to start your personal statement early and get an opinion on it too. I might ask or recommend that you re-work your statement which is to your advantage.

    Also, if I cannot support recommend you for medical/dental school, research scholarship, graduate school or residency, I have no problem letting you know this up front (usually in our meeting). In short, I am serving in an advisory role for you and I will tell you what I believe you need to make yourself competitive for what you seek.

    If you are applying to one of my medical schools and my name comes up as one of your writers of LOR (or I have a personal or professional relationship with you), I do not consider your application or vote on your application during committee meetings. After all, if I have been one of your LOR writers, I would have expressed my opinions and comparisions in my letter.

    Bottom line: Prepare yourself early for requesting letters. Give the letter writer a copy of your CV/resume and personal statement. Be prepared to meet with the letter writer and give a reasonable deadline for when the letter is needed. It is also nice to send a note and update your letter writers about your career progress. Know your deadlines and exceed them!

    I hope this helps.
     
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  49. Psycho Doctor

    Psycho Doctor *** Angel
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    yes, you do and if you don't it doesn't seem like it's as reliable of a letter. And of course you can sue anyone for slander any time; it doesn't mean it's justified or you'll win. I find it hard to believe (though in America, anything is possible) that someone won such a case; that must have been some slanderous letter and also not true. If it's true and can be proven I don't think the letter holds much weight. Also if it'sd documented by records they won't win a suit. (I've heard this about another situation when asking for job references; that was reviewed by a lawyer before a reference was given)
     
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  50. Psycho Doctor

    Psycho Doctor *** Angel
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    njbmd, I just read your whole blog and found it very enlightening, I learned a lot about you and about some of the struggles and joys of medicine...thanks:thumbup:
     
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