What Are Program Directors Looking for in a Letter of Recommendation

When applying for your residency, it’s important not to underestimate the value of solid letters of recommendation. Your letters of recommendation are your chance to tell your program director a little something about yourself, as opposed to your education, your technical expertise, or your clinical experience.

Letters of recommendation are written for you by physicians who have supervised you throughout the duration of your medical education. However, getting them is really only part of the equation when it comes to finally landing the residency of your dreams. It’s just as important to know what program directors are looking for in such letters right from the get-go.

Choosing Who Writes Your Letters of Recommendation

Just as important as what your letters say is who is actually writing them. Letters that come from specialists from the same medical sub-field you’re planning on going into carry much more weight. For example, if you’re going into cardiology, then try to have your letter written by a cardiologist who can speak to your ability in regards to the unique challenges presented by the field. Other good choices include faculty members with whom you worked on special projects or honors programs.

You will also want to pay attention to the academic standing of the physicians you ask to write your letters. Individuals who come attached to high accolades in their field and have prestigious backgrounds will naturally be better respected on the whole.

What Information Should Be Contained in a Letter of Recommendation

The true purpose of a letter of recommendation is to bring something personal to the table for the person the letter is actually about. While it’s fine if the letter writer expounds at least a little bit upon your technical skill or medical value as a physician, any and all information to this tune should also show a personal knowledge and understanding of who you are as a person as well.

Good letters avoid generic language and phrasing that could literally be used to describe anyone. (In fact, some program directors may see and overly general tone in a recommendation letter as a red flag.) Instead, they talk about the ways you yourself are unique. They mention specific instances of times you went above and beyond the call of duty and so forth.

Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

One of the biggest mistakes people make when requesting letters of recommendation is waiting until the last minute to actually ask for one. Instead, approach people about your letters with plenty of time to spare, as sometimes it takes a while to actually get your letters back. You should also make sure you approach more than one individual about writing you a letter. Experts generally agree that it’s smart to have at least three letters at your disposal when it comes time to apply for your residencies. The more letters you have, the better a picture your potential director will have of what you bring to the table as a physician.