Faculty Resources

ERAS — Electronic Residency Application Service

“ERAS is a service which transmits residency applications, letters of recommendation, MSPE’s, transcripts, and other supporting credentials from medical schools to residency program directors using the Internet.”

Visit the ERAS website » 

Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Rob Patterson, rhpatter@wustl.edu

General advice

  • Our job as letter-writers is to advocate for the student!
  • Be honest.  There must be synergy between your letter and other letters.  If the student is submitting a personal essay or is interviewed, the committee will be looking for synergy between those and your letter as well.
  • If you’ve never written a letter for a specific purpose, contact those who have!
  • Do not mention ethnicity, age, marital status, etc. unless something is relevant to explaining a deficiency in the student’s record. Talk to the student first.

What goes in

  • Begin with a brief paragraph introducing the student and the position for which he/she is applying.  This should include something akin to a thesis.
    • “It is with great pleasure that I recommend John Smith for admission as a graduate student in the Department of Basket Weaving at Jellystone University.  John is a highly disciplined student whose creativity and drive have earned him a great deal of respect among both faculty and staff at Washington University.”
  • Describe who you are and how you know the student.
    • “During my fifteen years at Washington University as X, I have worked with and personally supervised more than # students.”
  • Clarify terms specific to Wash U.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY:  Give meaningful examples, anecdotes, etc. to illustrate the student’s strengths as put forth in your “thesis.”  This is your “evidence.”  They can’t select a student based on abstract descriptors.  You must include specific examples of when the candidate demonstrated the skills/traits you say they have.
  • Put the student in a larger context.  What are other students you’ve interacted with doing now?  How does this student compare to those?
  • Consider the requirements of the position.  The description of the position/award/grant is basically your essay prompt. This is not possible when a student asks for a letter for his/her dossier, but if you are the one sending multiple letters, you can modify the first one to cater to specific requirements.
  • Talk about the student’s personality only as it relates to the requirements of the position.
  • Again, use specific illustrative examples.
  • Remember that what you leave out or what you left unsaid also says something.
  • Close by reiterating the student’s strengths, perhaps how he/she will contribute to the target University’s community.
    • Say you are happy to be contacted if the reader has any questions.
    • Include your full title and position under your signature.

When you are asked to write a letter

  • Do you know the student well enough to write a convincing and supportive letter?
  • If not, be honest with the student.  Use this as a teaching opportunity and have a conversation with them about how to choose recommenders.
  • Get comfortable saying no!  Sometimes saying no is in the student’s best interests.
  • Meet with the student; request relevant materials to help you learn more about the student’s goals, the position/grant/award and what the committee is looking for.
  • For “old” students, ask for an update on what he/she has been doing in the interim.

Some technical stuff

  • Remember that the letter will be read very quickly by someone who has hundreds to read.
  • Set aside time to write the letter AND come back to it later to revise.
  • Should be at least 1 page and not more than 2 pages single spaced.
  • Use a font size that is easier to read and an extra space between paragraphs.
  • Remember when submitting electronically, your readers might see the document name.
  • If submitting over email, the substance of your email is as important as the attachment.
  • Use department letter head.  If submitting electronically, get a document with your department’s letterhead on it.

Final thoughts

  • Your credibility is everything!
    • Proofread!
    • Don’t say anything you can’t back up.
    • Don’t make claims about the student’s abilities unless you are certain.  If they don’t deliver, your future letters will be discredited.
  • Send the right letter to the right place.
  • Don’t trust mail merge!
  • Confidential letters carry more weight.  If the student has a choice, explain why waving the right to see the letter can help his/her chances.
  • A personal handwritten note attached to the letter can be very effective if the letter is going somewhere with which you have a personal connection (former colleagues, former instructors, friends, etc.).