By: Ryan Kelly
So you found someone to write you a letter, and you’re feeling pretty darn good about yourself. You mustered the confidence to approach the recommender, who has happily complied. Congrats--kudos--huzzah! You deserve a nice long catnap on the campus quad.
But wait, hold up--did they just tell you to write the letter yourself? What? As in write your own recommendation? Aren’t there rules against this kind of thing?
Nope. Turns out that knowing someone is only half the battle, and in this case, half the hassle.
While the write-it-yourself letter might seem like a chore, you can take this opportunity to write yourself an A+ letter of recommendation. Consider for a moment what makes for a good letter of recommendation:
Good letters of recommendation:
Tell specific stories and use specific details not otherwise found in the rest of the application.
Compare the applicant to other pre-meds that the letter writer may have known.
Focus on the applicant’s abilities to succeed in medical school and as a physician.
Bad letters of recommendation:
Use lots of adjectives without backing them up with specific examples.
Evaluate the applicant on their own merits without comparing him or her to other students.
Focus on general personal qualities without putting them in context of how these qualities might shine through in a medical setting.
By allowing you to write your own letter, your letter writer is giving you permission to make it good! You have just avoided the problems that most letter writers face: a full slate of professional obligations and too little time to write a good, specific letter. Awesome!
But what should this letter look like? Where do you begin? Let’s start with the basics:
How to Present Yourself
Clean, proper formatting is like dressing up for a job interview. It makes the first impression to the eyes, so it should feel appropriate for the context without being too flashy. Be consistent in formatting choices and keep the information streamlined.
Follow a traditional formal letter template, even when submitting electronically. Make sure to include contact info for the recommender in the upper right (email and phone # will suffice).
Because you will be submitting this same letter to multiple medical schools, you should not address the letter to the school directly. There are occasions when you might be requesting a letter for a specific medical school, but it's pretty rare. A simple, "To whom it may concern," or "To the admissions committee," will suffice.
Use 11 or 12 font size in some common typeface like Arial or Times New Roman. Margins can be reduced to 1 or .75 inches to help fit your text into the ideal one-page limit.
“Sincerely” or “Kind regards” is the safest choice when concluding the letter.
Go ahead and take a long hard look at that beautifully formatted blank letter in front of you. Gaze into its white abyss. Yes, it seems daunting, but once you start it’ll be a downward trek to the finish line.
Indicate how long the recommender has known you and in what capacity. Include all titles and responsibilities held by both parties in the relationship. End with a “thesis” that highlights 2-3 personal characteristics which show your excellent candidacy for medical school
Tips for the opening paragraph:
Avoid cliche openers like “It is with great pleasure...” or “It is an honor to recommend...”
Avoid common descriptors for pre-meds like intelligent, hard-working, and compassionate.
Maintain a straightforward, semi-formal tone.
If possible, limit this paragraph to a maximum of 4-5 lines.
After serving as a chemistry professor at ABC University for over 20 years, I have worked with countless teaching assistants, but Student’s Full Name is one I will never forget. During our two semesters together, she exhibited keen scientific insight, a mature perspective, and an adaptable, innovative approach to teaching. She is an exemplary mind and spirit who will undoubtedly be an asset to your medical school program.
Paragraphs 2, 3, and (maybe) 4
Show support by providing both quantitative and qualitative proof of the personal characteristics highlighted in your “thesis.” Paragraphs should ideally focus on one characteristic at a time, but sometimes the information shared can reveal multiple traits at once.
Tips for the body paragraphs:
Show, don’t tell. Anecdotes and specific examples will speak volumes.
Transitions between paragraphs should be functional but concise.
Pair individual accomplishments with valuable team roles/efforts.
Include both quantitative evidence (i.e. exceeding company quotas) and qualitative evidence (i.e. effectively training novice employees) to showcase your skills.
If necessary, link the characteristic to your preparation for medical school.
characteristic--adaptable, innovative approach to teaching
Every year students struggle with the concept of equilibrium and Le Chatelier’s Principle, but Student’s Name managed to make the complex formulas and ideas more accessible. I recall several long sessions of office hours, in which she walked the bewildered pupils through the various principles, often utilizing visuals or funny metaphors to help the concepts stick. Student’s Name quickly inferred what each individual thinker needed and adapted her instruction to form lasting connections in the student’s mind. Rather than giving out answers, she provided tools for them to succeed on their own in the future. Despite her success, she regularly sought my input on how to perfect her mini-lessons and tutoring strategies. Her dedication translated into unusually high test scores for the students, earning her ample praise in the course evaluations. She has clearly shown her ability to comfort others during stressful moments and clarify difficult concepts for people seeking guidance. These skills, along with her genuine desire to improve as a lifelong learner, will make her an excellent medical student and future physician.
Paragraph 5 (the conclusion)
Quickly reiterate the characteristics that distinguish you as a candidate. Implicitly show why you’re different or extraordinary. Insert some slight sentimentality or personal touch.
Tips for the conclusion:
Keep this section brief (3-4 lines). Your body paragraphs should do most of the convincing.
If you know the recommender well, you can add a note in the conclusion, expressing the recommender’s willingness to further testify on your behalf.
Of all the pre-meds I’ve known over the years, there have only been a handful that I would choose to be my doctor. Student’s Name is one of these choices because of her poise, mental aptitude, sensitivity, and accountability. I have full confidence in her ability to thrive in your program, improve her local community, and make meaningful contributions to the medical field.
When you’re done with the draft
By now, you’ve probably raked it bone-dry for typos. You’re probably sick of writing about yourself in the third person, and you likely have feelings of anxiety about sounding arrogant, inauthentic, or terribly corny. But here’s the thing: if you reread the letter and say, “I would never describe myself this way,” then you’ve essentially succeeded in one of your primary goals. It’s not supposed to sound like you, because it’s not supposed to be written by you.
The recommender has given you free reign to put words in their mouth, so you shouldn’t hesitate to praise your own efforts and potential. It’s not selling out, and it’s not pandering. You’re writing a recommendation the same way you’d write it for someone else you admire. If the recommender really has an issue with the letter, he or she will change it themselves or suggest edits. When you pass the draft along to him/her, show gratitude and remain humble; tell him/her that it was a tricky writing process and that you’re open to any alterations. It’s always a nice touch to give them a Starbucks gift card or some comparable treat as a token of thanks.
Now… about that long catnap on the quad…