Having been in practice for several years now, I have had college students, graduate students, and coworkers ask for me to act as a professional reference. In order to convey the high regards in which I held the candidates, I researched the proper protocol before getting started.
This article will outline the essential components of a recommendation letter, important points to make when asked to provide a reference over the phone, how to politely decline a recommendation request that you don’t feel comfortable giving, and lastly, a sample draft of a recommendation letter.
Set the foundation
Let’s start with the basics. Find out what position the letter is for since this will guide you. For example, is it for an internship, graduate school, or a job opportunity? Are you writing to multiple programs or people? If so, will you need to alter the information accordingly?
You should ask for a short written statement from the candidate or speak over the phone regarding why they are specifically interested in that program or job. Request a curriculum vitae and copies of publications or projects the candidate is involved with. This will give you a thorough overview of the candidate’s accomplishments; you may even learn something new about them!
In considering the overall flow of a recommendation letter, it is important to first introduce yourself and your candidate.
Begin by stating the applicant's name and desired position. Then introduce yourself. Your position/title, years of experience and affiliations/educational institutions are appropriate as relevant to the position. If the desired position is at your alma mater or current place of work this is an appropriate time to make that known.
If you're on the receiving end of a reference letter and you're getting ready to hire someone, make sure you know the basics of background checks!
Follow up by presenting your relationship to the candidate and provide evidence that you are, in fact, fit to make this recommendation. State the length of time and capacity in which you know or have worked with the candidate. Try to be specific:
- Did the candidate work for you or with you?
- How long have you know them?
- Did you collaborate on certain projects?
Why your candidate?
Consider your letter to be an affirmation of the applicant’s curriculum vitae and personal statement or interview. As the title of this section suggests, your job is to confirm that you believe the candidate is a perfect fit and will be a positive contributor to the position or program. This is the most substantial yet most difficult portion of a recommendation letter.
When describing your candidate utilize specific actions and qualities rather than generalities. In doing so, it would behoove you to choose the standouts and go more in depth by providing examples rather than a laundry list of admirable qualities.
Here are a few points to consider to help you find those standout qualities:
Work ethic and behavior
- Does the applicant show eagerness to learn?
- Are they open to opportunities for improvement?
- Are they trustworthy, responsible, punctual and respectful and ethical in the work environment?
Passion and motivation
- Why is the applicant interested in this field?
- Have they shared personal anecdotes with you of why they are pursuing these specific personal and/or professional goals?
Interpersonal skills and communication
- Can the applicant communicate in a clear, respectful, compassionate manner with patients, their families and coworkers?
- Communicating and problem solving under pressure may also be relevant depending on the field/position.
Unique personality traits
- Are they an impressive team leader?
- Are they constantly brainstorming out the box solutions?
- Do they have exceptional patient relationships so much so that they are requested by name?
The length of the letter can range from one paragraph to one page, depending on the position and how well you know the candidate; the average is 3 paragraphs. It should go without saying that a professional font and spacing format should be used.
If you are sending a letter through the mail, use formal business letter formatting. This means your information, the date, and the recipient information should all be on top of the letter. A formal letter should also include your real signature at the bottom. If you're sending the letter directly via email, no heading is needed, however, be sure to state the applicant's name and desired position in the subject line. Also include your contact information at the end under your name/signature.
Close the letter by offering your availability for further questions or correspondence regarding the applicant.
Some applications require that you send the letter directly to the program, ensuring that the candidate does not have access to it. That being said, it is your choice whether or not to have the candidate read your letter before finalizing. Some programs request the letter along with the application packet therefore the applicant will see your letter of recommendation and submit it themselves.
Other types of recommendations/references
The previous scenario of a formal, written recommendation letter is most common with graduate and professional programs. This includes residency and fellowship programs. When considering applications for job opportunities, phone interviews and reference forms via mail or email are more frequently requested.
The reference request forms are usually quite simple and straightforward. Most often they require you to rate the candidate using a scale (e.g. 1-5) to measure qualities such as professional ability, character, trustworthiness, and reliability and may or may not request brief comments.
Acting as a reference over the phone may be a bit trickier. The institution may or may not have specific questions for you to answer. Personally, I have provided phone references both with and without specific questions. The first, I was asked specific questions about my relationship with the candidate and how I felt she would fit and excel at the institution (basically the same tenets I would have shared in a formal letter).
If you're presenting a series of questions to a reference, here are some key job interview questions for you to use as a jumping off point!
The second time, the interviewer had no questions at all! They simply said, “so tell me about Dr. So-and-so.” Though the open ended type may seem easier theoretically, I found myself wishing I had organized my thoughts better. For this reason, I recommend writing down notes beforehand as a “cheat sheet” for talking points and examples.
When and how to say “no”
There will be scenarios in which you will need to politely decline giving a recommendation. The most common reasons are:
- You do not remember the applicant or know them well
- You do not think they are an appropriate candidate for the position
- You do not particularly want to be associated with the person for the sake of your reputation
None are easy to express, but you are under no obligation to recommend a candidate you do not feel comfortable recommending! If this is the case, suggest the candidate find someone else who can better attest to their personal qualities or who they have worked with more closely. It is also in the best interest of both parties for you to say no than write a bland or negative letter.
Say something simple and polite and wish them luck. For example, “I don’t think I am the right person for the letter, maybe someone you worked with more closely would be a better option. Best of luck with the opportunity.”
Assisting the next generation of healthcare professionals to obtain their dream opportunities is a right of passage. Now that, as established professionals, we have this ability we need to take the responsibility seriously. It is a way to thank those mentors and employers who who did the same for us; or as the Harvard Businesses Review calls it, building “good business practice karma."
In order to effectively help our candidate grab the awesome opportunity we need to come to the table prepared. Knowing the proper tools allows us to present them in the best light possible!