By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising
These frequently asked questions about gathering letters of recommendation for health professional school are but a sampling of what I’ve heard over the years from students as they look ahead and try to determine who might support them in their quest to become doctors, dentists, physician assistants, etc. The worries are abundant—as is the uneasiness many authors of letters feel when they sit down to draft letters. On both sides, the students’ and the recommenders’, the process can be uncomfortable, even anxious, tedious, and time-consuming. As encouragement to all, I have two main things to say: Yes, there are people out there who read these letters of recommendation (in fact, it's part of their job). Thus, your work is significant and worthwhile. And remember, an individual letter writer is but one voice among several singing in support of an applicant. Therefore, each letter need not describe its subject completely; rather, it need only give an informed perspective from within the context of the author and applicant's relationship.
At a meeting of advisors at the University of Maryland last week, we spent most of an afternoon discussing how we write letters for our advisees and how we educate the faculty, coaches, administrators, physicians, and others in and around our college communities on the essentials for writing effective, evaluative, and ideally elegant expressions of support. The Association of American Colleges (AAMC) is even developing guidelines for writing letters as we speak. As a member of an AAMC working group charged with creating these guidelines, I’ve had the privilege of going through a list of suggestions line by line, debating the rationale for including each one in the ultimate guide that the AAMC hopes to introduce later this year. My point is, the topic of letters of recommendation, or “evaluation” as they may eventually be called, is getting a lot of attention these days. It’s serious work, and everyone involved in the process—from students to letter writers to Admissions personnel—wants it to remain meaningful and helpful.
So, stay tuned. If and when guidelines for letter writers are announced, I’ll update you. And, since you’re all dying to know, the answers to my initial questions are: