It will soon be that time of year when many of you will be asked to prepare letters of recommendation for PGY1 Residency candidates. I would like to offer a Residency Director (RPD) perspective. Although I only write a handful, don’t forget, as a RPD, I read about 300-500 letters every year. To start let us assume that the purpose of a letter of recommendation is to advise the residency selection committee.
Keep your letter to one or two paragraphs. A poorly written letter of recommendation does not improve with length. Tell us what you do, and how you know the student in two or three sentences. Give us an estimate of the student’s ability. Make your level of support very clear: “I highly recommend, recommend, recommend with reservation, do not recommend Joe Student for your residency. I place Joe Student in the top 95%, 90%, 75% etc. of all the students assigned to me from this class. I am very confident, confident, or hopeful that this candidate will be a successful resident.” It is probably better to decline rather than write a negative recommendation or even a recommendation with reservations. Rewriting the students C.V. as your letter of recommendation is not really helpful and is a waste of your and my time. If you really want to help the student and you know the program director, add another sentence or two explaining why you think the student would fit in at Northwestern, or at whatever program is selected by the candidate. If you are unfamiliar with a residency program, have the student tell you why they are interested in that program, and to list the strengths of a particular program. Try to describe why you think your student is a good candidate for my residency program. If the strengths of all the identified potential residency programs resemble a scatter diagram consider having a serious discussion with your student. A lack of direction in a candidate will be exposed during their interview and will likely reduce their chances to match.
At a minimum of courtesy- PLEASE don’t send a ‘generic letter,’ especially to someone you know. By this, I mean a form letter that is used for all of the students for whom you are writing letters. When a letter is written to ‘Residency Director,’ but you know the RPD, it looks especially generic. In such letters, it is difficult to ascertain if you are really recommending a student or not. Therefore, a generic letter will likely be interpreted as a statement of non-support. Likewise it does not help anyone to “abstain from voting” (i.e. not providing a clear, specific recommendation) on a letter of recommendation. Again, make sure your level of support is crystal clear. Finally proofread for mixed messages in your letter: “You would be fortunate to get this person to work in your program.” “I can’t think of all the good things to say about this candidate.” Are these favorable or unfavorable statements? Often authors spend a lot of time describing their rotation and informing us how demanding they are as a preceptor. The best way to help your student “score” an interview is to help the candidate screening Committee determine if your student is a good fit for our program. If the letter is all about you, does that mean you do not recommend the candidate? Once your letters are sent out don’t forget to send a note to inform the candidate.
We all have plenty to do. I am impressed that so many pharmacists are willing to take the extra time to serve as an excellent preceptor, and that your students think enough of you to ask you for these dreaded letters of recommendation. Thank You for what you do for the future of our profession!
The information in this paper was presented in the July issue of KeePosted the Newsjournal of the Illinois Council of Health-System Pharmacists.