There is definitely way more strategy that goes into obtaining letters of evaluation than I think most students realize. This is NOT a regular old letter of recommendation, this is a totally different beast!
Several of my mentors told me that I should guide my writers as much as I can and I should confirm with them that they felt capable of writing a STRONG letter. I thought about this advice for a long time because I did not know exactly how to accomplish it. This is how I decided to take initiative. I shall try to give you all a concise list of the methods I used to guide my letter writers to create a JAW DROPPING letter. These can be the cherry on the top that tip you over the edge into the “interview” pile; don’t play.
I will not be talking specifically about how to pick your letter writers because this post is already going to be super long, but please make sure you choose people who truly know you and have a good relationship with you. It will also make all the instructions you are about to give them less awkward. Ok lets move on.
- Ask your letter writer in person whenever possible. I made sure that when I got to the actual sentence where I was asking for the letter I said something along the lines of, “based on our work and time together, do you believe that you would be able to write me a STRONG letter of evaluation?” Don’t leave out the word STRONG, it makes a difference in the person’s response. It makes them think if this is something they are willing to commit to rather than just writing you a generalized, plain letter and saying yes without thinking. Asking them in person also allows you to see their facial expression and body language to assess further if they are being honest. Or if your request caught them by surprise because they feel they don’t know you well enough. You need to know! Also make sure you ask them what they would like you to send them to help them write the letter, give them what they need to make their life easier. Most of my letter writers wanted my personal statement, my CV, and my transcript.
- Do NOT assume that your letter writer has written a letter of evaluation for medical school before. And even if they have, chances are that previous students did not provide as much guidance as you are about to. I made sure to attach the instructions and information guide on the components of this type of letter in the follow up email. AAMC has a good one here https://www.aamc.org/download/349990/data/lettersguidelinesbrochure.pdf Depending on what competencies I believed that writer could speak to, I highlighted those on the pdf before I sent it.
- Letter writers will not remember every single encounter you had with them where you showed excellence. Help them remember. For each writer, I attached a list (or wrote it in the email) of activities or responsibilities that I had when working with that person. Make sure to highlight any specific times you outdid yourself. Bullet points with short descriptions are fine; I usually titled mine “list of activities” and said that I was attaching it as a suggestion on topics they could speak to and to help them save time. If you ever got an evaluation from that person before, use it to your advantage. For example, at my job we got yearly evaluations where the supervisor would assess different aspects of our work in writing. For this letter writer, I actually attached a copy of my evaluation and highlighted the instances where I demonstrated great ability. For my clinic volunteer work, I made sure to include descriptions of times where I was instrumental in improving patients’ health. For example, there was an instance where I had to help the doctor set up a sterile environment for a central line and be her assistant since she could not touch other things once she had started. Because there were 3 traumas that arrived at the same time, no other staff were available to help her and I had to follow directions closely to work both the ultrasound machine, gather materials throughout the ED, and maintain sterility. There was no way I wanted her to leave this out, so it was at the top of my list.
- Give each letter writer a one liner of what your GOAL is with that specific letter. Each one should have some uniqueness to why you chose it. It will give that person something to focus on and help them with the overarching theme of what they are writing. For example, for my supervisor I wrote, “… I would like to use your letter to highlight my customer service skills, my reliability, and my flexibility in a work environment. It would be great if you could try to bring my personality to life when you are mentioning these skills. My goal is to demonstrate to medical schools that I would be easy to work with and a great addition to their team. As well as show that my customer service skills will translate to good bedside manners in the future as a physician.” Don’t keep them guessing what you want them to include. They want to help you, so tell them how.
- Make sure that even if you met with them in person and talked about the process, you summarize the important points in an email that they can go back to. This way they don’t need to wonder where they will be submitting and when the deadline is, etc.
- Ask for the letter waayyyy in advance. Most of your letter writers will be extremely busy people, so don’t make their life even more hectic by waiting till the last second. On average I asked about 5 months in advance. Minimum I would say give them 1 month, but I’m paranoid and thats kind of pushing it lol. Because I graduated a year before I was applying, I actually asked one of my professors on the last week of school. I did not want to wait till a year later when she may have forgotten about me. I just made sure to tell her to submit the letter in a few months to Interfolio, where I stored it for 6-7 months and I made it clear that I was applying in a year.
- Make sure you add a sentence somewhere in the email where you mention that you are available to help them should they have any questions or need more guidance. This way, if they are struggling, they won’t hesitate to reach out. A few of my letter writers actually took me up on the offer an we worked together on taking the writing to the next level after their first draft. It was night and day. Be open to giving constructive criticism, in an appreciative way, when they open up that door for you and ask for it. Some writers are super by the book and will not want any collaboration, which is perfectly fine! At least you sent them thorough guidance via email and suggestions on that first encounter.
- For peace of mind, I set a due date for the letter a month BEFORE my application was due for submission. Interfolio allows you to set a due date for the writer and it even sends them reminders automatically which is nice. This worked out well for me because I asked with so much time in advance. It actually became quite useful that I did this because one of my writers submitted a “week late” from the interfolio due date I posted. Sometimes life gets in the way and they cannot submit even though they truly want to help. But you ain’t about to catch my application being late! lol It was still ON TIME.
I know this is ALOT of information, but if you convey it concisely, the email you will send will not be as long as it sounds. Make sure you BOLD any logistical instructions, like the submission link and the due date so its easy to identify at first glance. Okay, this is all I can think of for now, although I am sure I am missing something. I know this can be a scary experience, but practice what you will say in the mirror when you meet with people and make multiple drafts of your email before you send it to ensure no errors are made. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
Stay strong y Sigan Luchando,