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What To Put in a Reference Letter


Full Member
Jul 8, 2013
  1. Pre-Medical
    Hey guys,

    I asked my prof for a reference letter, and he said yes!
    Told told me to send him a list of things he wanted be to emphasize in the letter, so I was just wondering what some good things to emphasize in the letter are?



    The Gimlet Eye
    Verified Expert
    15+ Year Member
    Sep 4, 2006
    The Other Side of the Portal
    1. Attending Physician
      Preprofessional Advising
      University of Virginia


      Letters of recommendation are an important and required component of a student’s application to
      medical school. The application process has become increasingly competitive, and a persuasive
      recommendation letter can have a significant impact on an applicant’s candidacy. As one of a
      group of letters written on behalf of UVa applicants to medical school, yours is essential to the
      admissions process. The Preprofessional Advising office is aware of the substantial time
      commitment involved in writing letters of recommendation. After reading this material, if you
      have questions about letter-writing or the medical school application process, contact us at
      924-8900. We are located inside University Career Services at Bryant Hall.
      The Basics• Think carefully about how well you know the student who is requesting a recommendation
      letter. Do you know him/her well enough to write an endorsement for medical school? If
      for any reason you do not feel that you can write positively on a student’s behalf, be
      honest with him/her and decline to write the letter.• We advise prehealth students to give recommenders information about their academic
      studies, employment history, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and research. Ask
      for this material if it is not provided.• Sit down with the student and discuss his/her interest in the field of medicine and reasons
      for pursuing a medical education.• Confidentiality. It is the student’s right to decide if the letter will remain confidential or
      non-confidential. Confidential letters are taken much more seriously than non-confidential
      letters, and we strongly encourage students to keep their letters confidential. The
      Interfolio cover sheet, provided by the individual you are recommending, indicates if
      he/she has waived access to your letter.• All letters should be on official letterhead. Sign your letter. Make sure to use your full
      name and professional title.• A student may provide you with a school-specific recommendation form, including a chart
      or grid where you are asked to rank students. You are not required to complete this form,
      but you may staple the blank form behind your letter if you are submitting it by mail. All
      U.S. medical schools accept the collection of letters our prehealth students send from their
      Interfolio account.
      What to Include
      An author’s personal style influences the format for his/her letters. However, many writers follow
      a composition similar to the following:• Express your pleasure at having the opportunity to recommend the applicant.• Indicate how long and in what capacity you have known the applicant.• Note that you would recommend this student specifically for medical school.• Explore how this applicant compares in intellectual ability to other students you have
      encountered this year or in previous years.• Evaluate the student’s potential in the field of medicine. How has the student
      demonstrated a commitment to medicine? Does he/she strike you as a compassionate
      individual who will make a good doctor some day? Does the student seem familiar with
      health care?• Discuss the student’s coursework, including the nature of the course(s), difficulty of
      coursework/major, grades received, notable work assignments, etc. This may be a good
      Our thanks to Heather Bois, Graduate Intern, for her work on this project.
      opportunity to reflect on the student’s academic ability, including communication skills
      (oral and written), listening and observational abilities, attention to detail, capacity for
      hard work, foreign language skills, organizational ability, originality, and resourcefulness.• Discuss a few of the student’s strengths that you know well and wish to highlight.
      _ Intellectual ability, such as capacity for critical thinking, the ability to understand,
      analyze, and synthesize information, problem-solving skills, and teaching or research
      _ Interpersonal skills, including ability to collaborate and get along with peers, response
      to criticism, leadership, and attitude toward supervision.
      _ Personal qualities, such as maturity, compassion, responsibility, empathy, creativity,
      self-awareness, demonstrated judgment, and initiative.
      _ Extracurricular activities, including depth of involvement and achievements.
      _ Special attributes, assets, or circumstances. All UVa students applying to medical
      school have a formal interview with the prehealth advisor, who writes an evaluative
      letter. One purpose of this letter is to explain anomalies in a candidate’s academic
      record or circumstances contributing to a dip in grades. However, should you feel
      qualified to do so, you are welcome to discuss such situations in your letter as well.
      There might also be special strengths or abilities that warrant mention; while not
      obviously relevant to the student’s interest in medicine, such talents make the
      candidate unique and help medical schools distinguish between applicants.• You may wish to conclude your letter with a reaffirmation of your endorsement of the
      student’s application and an offer to answer follow-up questions if necessary.
      What to Avoid• Don’t speculate. Be as specific and factual as possible. Give concrete examples to
      illustrate your characterizations of the student. Base your statements on observations and
      information obtained through direct contact with the student or their school record.• Avoid discussing an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual
      orientation, citizenship status, or marital status. Also avoid commenting on a student’s
      appearance, family background, health, or other personal circumstances unless they are
      immediately relative to their application.• Students should not be asked to write their own letters of recommendation. In addition, if
      another person assists you in writing the letter, the pronoun “we” should be used
      throughout the letter and it should be co-signed. This pertains especially to situations
      where teaching assistants are writing letters. We advise students to request letters signed
      by both professor and TA, although in certain situations a letter from only a TA is
      acceptable to medical schools.
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