Medical schools require letters of recommendation as part of the application process. You may have asked your employer, professor, or research supervisor to write your letter of recommendation, only to receive the following answer:
“Sure, I’d be happy to help. Please write a draft, and I will review and sign off on it.”
Securing strong medical school letters of recommendation is daunting enough, but now you have been tasked with writing your own letter of recommendation. In this blog, we will help you successfully navigate steps to take if you find yourself in this situation. We will discuss options to consider, what to include and what to avoid in writing a letter of recommendation for yourself, and how to structure your letter of recommendation. Finally, we will provide a sample letter of recommendation so that you can ace how to write a letter of recommendation for yourself.
Letters of recommendation for medical school applications are an essential component in evaluating applicants. Recommendation letters from supportive references tell admissions officers about your unique and outstanding qualities that make you an excellent candidate. This can include an overview of your skill set, your greatest accomplishments, what sets you apart from the crowd, the desirable qualities you possess, and your honorable character.
When you ask your letter writers for a letter of recommendation, they will respond in one of three ways:
This is the best-case scenario if you have built a strong rapport with your letter writer and they are familiar with your work. Generally, your letter writer will only say yes if they truly feel that they can fairly endorse your stellar work ethic and character. In this case, they’ll agree to write a glowing letter of recommendation that will improve your chances of acceptance into your dream program.
Rejection is never easy, and a potential letter writer saying no to your request can be disheartening. However, it is important to reframe your perspective and realize that hearing no is likely a blessing in disguise. Remember their reasons for saying no—they either do not have the time for additional tasks at the moment, or they likely do not know you well enough to write an effective letter of recommendation that will do you justice. In this case, they are actually looking out for your best interest because a mediocre or vague letter of recommendation will negatively impact your medical school application. So, thank them for their time, and move on to ask someone who knows you and your work better.
Usually, you will receive this answer from those who truly do want to help with your application, but they are pressed for time and trust you to write the initial draft, which they will then review, send back for revisions if necessary, and sign.
Writing a letter of recommendation for yourself might sound ethically questionable, but it is actually a positive if you look at it this way: It is an opportunity for you to be in control and part of your own evaluation. After all, no one knows what you have achieved better than yourself, so you can be your own biggest advocate.
You have been asked to write your own letter of recommendation because your reference supports you and trusts you enough to delegate this responsibility. You can rise to the occasion and be just as enthusiastic about your accomplishments as your reference feels about them.
If you have been asked to write your own letter of recommendation, you have three options to consider:
This is straightforward—simply thank the individual you asked for their time, be professional, and move on to ask others for a letter of recommendation. You are not obligated to write your own letter of recommendation if you do have the time or feel that you will not succeed in writing your own. It is always better to secure a letter of recommendation from someone who is enthusiastic about you and your work. Anything less than enthusiastic may actually harm an otherwise strong application.
In this situation, you and your letter writer reach a compromise where you don’t write your own recommendation letter in its entirety. Instead, you give your letter writer a list of highlights (with some supporting details) to include in your letter of recommendation. Not only does this save valuable time for your letter writer, but it also extends the courtesy of reminding your letter writer of your specific accomplishments and strengths. (Remember, your professors, supervisors, coaches, and mentors oversee many individuals, so it is best to be considerate of their time and assistance.)
This is also straightforward—you thank the individual you asked for their time and let them know when to expect the first draft of your letter of recommendation for them to approve (or provide feedback) and sign.
Knowing what to include and what to avoid in your letter of recommendation will ensure that the writing process is smooth and efficient for you.
Before you begin to write your letter of recommendation, keep the following things in mind:
- Tell stories/anecdotes that are rich in detail and speak to your individual accomplishments, assets, and strengths.
- Focus on the specific qualities and abilities that will ensure your success as a medical school student and physician.
- Be sure that the experiences you are writing about are an honest assessment that your letter writer will approve and sign. Be objective.
- Provide insights and information in your letter of recommendation that are not found elsewhere in your application.
- Maintain a positive, professional, and humble tone throughout your letter of recommendation.
- Include both quantitative and qualitative evidence to support your strengths. (For example, exceeding company quotas is quantitative and volunteering at a domestic violence shelter is qualitative.)
Additionally, there are certain elements that you should avoid in your letter of recommendation:
- Avoid cliches and generic descriptive terms for pre-meds (compassionate, hardworking, intelligent) without backing them up with specific, detailed examples.
- Don’t let your letter of recommendation rely on too many adjectives without concrete examples and stories that support them.
- Avoid giving too many examples. It is better to discuss a few noteworthy examples that go into rich detail and are insightful than too many that get lost trying to compete with each other for attention.
- Avoid being too vague and general. Remember, you want to connect with the admissions committee and show how your experiences and qualities will help you succeed in a medical setting.
- Show, don’t tell. The most effective anecdotes weave compelling stories.
- Avoid spelling and grammatical errors. Since you are doing the writing, be sure to thoroughly proofread your letter of recommendation multiple times.
Structuring your letter of recommendation is essential to maximize your experiences while remaining concise. A great letter of recommendation adheres to the following structure:
The opening paragraph indicates how long the recommender has known you and in what capacity. It includes the titles and responsibilities that were held by both the recommender and you during the relationship. An effective opening paragraph ends with a “thesis statement” that highlights two to three characteristics/experiences/examples that will be expanded upon in the body paragraphs. The characteristics/experiences/examples should show your excellence as a candidate.
Each characteristic/experience/example that is stated in the thesis statement should be expanded upon with anecdotes and rich detail in its own separate body paragraph. Dedicating one full paragraph to every example will ensure that it is thoroughly discussed.
Keep your concluding paragraph brief, as most of the convincing will be done in the body paragraphs. You can add a personal touch and make a final endorsement for your candidacy.
The following is a sample of a letter of recommendation that follows all of the criteria that makes a great and positive endorsement for an applicant’s candidacy. It combines desirable qualities, specific anecdotes that support them, and details about accomplishments not included elsewhere in the student’s application. (Note: This sample has been reworked to fit our purposes and was originally provided by the University of Michigan Medical School.)
“Dear Admissions Committee Director’s Name:
It is a true pleasure for me to write this letter of recommendation for [Student Name], who was my student in Sociology 115, “Introduction to Sociology,” in the winter term of XXXX. [Student Name] is, without question, one of the four or five most outstanding students I have taught at Big State University in my six years of teaching.
[Student Name] is a careful and creative thinker with an eye for detail and a devotion to logic, which serves her well both in the sciences and outside of them. She has the terrific ability to draw on her own experience and observations to develop thoughtful opinions on a variety of issues. [Student Name] already knew she wanted to major in biology when she took my course, but this did not diminish her intellectual curiosity about the topics we covered in Introductory Sociology. Her regular contributions to full-class discussions provided insight both for her peers and for me as an instructor.
[Student Name] was also invaluable in small-group interaction with her peers. Without my asking, she took on the responsibility of helping her classmates consolidate vast amounts of information into coherent sets of ideas, and she quickly became a study group leader. In addition, [Student Name] was very generous with her time and energy. I remember her meeting individually with a student from Thailand several times before the final exam to help him master all the material in a foreign language.
[Student Name] breaks the “scientist” stereotype with her writing: she was the best writer in the two sections I taught that semester. What was perhaps even more impressive was that she took the task of improving her writing more seriously than any other student in the class. One of her essays was later published in the annual sociology magazine “Title of Magazine.”
[Student Name] is not only an excellent student, but she is also personally delightful. She is as comfortable with herself as she is engaging, pleasant, and humorous. As I got to know [Student Name] over the semester, I became only more impressed by the wide range of her abilities—and by her modesty about them. She is an accomplished musician and scientist, both of which she does with a passion rare in undergraduates.
I wholeheartedly recommend [Student Name] as a prospective medical school student. In fact, I can think of few students whom I would recommend as highly. She will add a great deal to any incoming medical school class. I can also envision [Student Name] as a highly competent and caring physician someday, which I say as a high compliment indeed. Please contact me if there is anything else I can do on [Student Name’s] behalf.
Professor Name / Signature”
An effective letter of recommendation is one page total. Admissions committees read thousands of application documents, so you want to be considerate of their time.
It might be helpful for you to pretend that you’re writing a recommendation letter for someone else. Pro-tip: Swap out your name with a fictional name. This will allow you to gain some distance and concentrate instead on the content of your body paragraphs. Just remember to delete the fictional name and replace it with your own.
Ideally, your letter writers will write the majority of your recommendation letters. In the event that you are tasked to write several letters, remember that you do have the option to politely refuse and move on. Also, keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to have extra letters of recommendation. Ask additional people so that if one letter writer falls through due to unforeseen circumstances, you have options and back-up letters for your medical school application.
Please be respectful of their time, and mutually agree on a date of first submission. The reason that you have to write your letter of recommendation is because they likely could not commit fully to the time it takes to write it, but they still very much want to help you with your application. Be mindful of your school’s application deadlines as well, and ensure that your letter of recommendation will be finalized and signed well before the deadline.
Follow the traditional formal business letter template (and be sure that it also follows your application requirements). Include a heading, contact information, salutation, and closing signature.
It is never a good idea to be dishonest or embellish your achievements. If you feel the need to exaggerate, then that example is likely not strong enough to discuss in your letter of recommendation. Instead, focus on areas that make you shine as a candidate. If you struggle coming up with examples, reach out to your letter writer and see if you can compromise and work together on this one section. Perhaps your letter writer has a memory of your work that you have forgotten.
Always be sure that the people you ask know you well and can advocate for your work. You can ask science faculty, non-science faculty, employers, and supervisors in any volunteer or extracurricular activities. It is good to secure letters of recommendation from a variety of sources, as this will maximize your candidacy with diverse talking points.
Letters of recommendation are an essential component of medical school applications. Glowing letters of recommendation can increase your chances of acceptance into your dream school. While it is ideal to obtain letters of recommendation that are written by your letter writers, sometimes you will be tasked to write your own.
With this guide, you will successfully write a letter of recommendation for yourself that will make you shine.