Ten Tips for Getting a GREAT Letter of Recommendation

 College-aged student handing over CV and personal statement to a smiling professor in a colorful cartoon office setting, with books, laptop, and certificates in the background.
As with all parts of your application, you need a smart strategy for Letters of Rec

In the competitive world of applications—whether for college, graduate school, or a new job—a strong letter of recommendation can be a deciding factor in your favor. At Gurufi, where we specialize in personal statements, CVs, and letters of recommendation, we have seen firsthand how a well-crafted letter can make a substantial difference. Despite the fact that they play a pivotal role, far too many people simple hand them off to letter-writers and don’t have a thoughtful plan to ensure they get the most of their letters. Here is a 10-part guide to writing a strong letter of recommendation.

recommendation.

 

  1. Ask for a STRONG Letter of Recommendation

When I worked as a professor, I would write a letter for anybody who asked… but not everybody got a strong letter. If you earned a B-, my letter would basically say, “Johnny was in my class, completed the assignments on time, and earned a passing grade.” I told people beforehand, “I’ll write you a letter because it’s part of my job, but you haven’t earned a strong one.” By contrast, a great student got a longer, more specific and detailed, and effective letter.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t just ask if somebody will write you a letter; ask if they’ll write you a STRONG letter. They may say “no,” or otherwise, hedge, which indicates that you need to find somebody else. And, if they were going to write you a strong letter beforehand, it helps to set the expectation that you are seeking a letter that highlights your strengths and capabilities in a compelling way.

 

  1. Provide Your Personal Statement and CV

The best letters of recommendation are details, specific, and align with the core themes of your application. As such, to write a strong and detailed letter, your recommender needs to know about your achievements, goals, and experiences. Providing them with your personal statement and CV offers a comprehensive view of your background. Your personal statement will give them insights into your motivations and aspirations, while your CV will highlight your accomplishments and relevant experiences. This information helps them write a letter that is specific and tailored to the opportunity you are seeking.

When I wrote letters, having these documents was quite helpful in terms of making sure that I included details that complemented their application.

  1. Offer to Meet with Them to Discuss Your Application

A face-to-face or virtual meeting can be incredibly valuable. During this meeting, you can discuss the specific points you would like them to mention in the letter. Share your goals, why you’re applying for this particular program or position, and any specific achievements you want to highlight. This conversation can also help you gauge their willingness and enthusiasm for writing the letter, and it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions to better understand how they can support your application.

  1. Be Judicious About Who You Are Asking

Choosing the right person to write your letter of recommendation is crucial. Ideally, your recommender should know you well and be familiar with your work. This is FAR MORE important than simply choosing a big name. They should be someone who has observed your skills, achievements, and character firsthand and can write extensively about them. A letter from a well-known person may carry weight, but only if they truly know you and can provide a detailed and personal account of your abilities. Academic advisors, professors, direct supervisors, or mentors who have worked closely with you are often the best choices.

 

  1. Provide Them with Plenty of Time

Respect your recommender’s time by asking them well in advance of your application deadline. A rushed letter may lack the detail and thoughtfulness of one that was written with ample time. Asking somebody at the last minute might, frankly, also really annoy them, and “annoyed” isn’t the state of mind you want your writer to have. Aim to ask at least a month before the deadline, and be clear about when you need the letter. This allows your recommender to plan their schedule and gives them the time to craft a well-considered letter.

  1. Follow Up Politely and Be Sure to Thank Them Afterward

Once your recommender has submitted the letter, express your gratitude. A hand-written thank-you note is a courteous way to acknowledge their effort and support. Let them know how much you appreciate their help and keep them informed about the outcome of your application. A sincere thank you not only shows your appreciation but also leaves a positive impression for any future requests you may have.

If the deadline is approaching and you haven’t received confirmation that the letter has been submitted, it is appropriate to follow up politely. A gentle reminder can ensure that your application is completed on time without causing undue stress to your recommender.

 

Lastly, if you earn admission or get the job, be sure to forward that information to your letter-writer and thank them for it again.

 

  1. Provide Context and Details

If there are specific experiences or projects you want your recommender to mention, provide them with details. For example, if you worked on a significant project under their supervision, remind them of the specifics and the impact of your work. This helps them include concrete examples that can strengthen your letter.

I always appreciated it when students said, “please emphasize my work on X, Y, or Z…” as it gave me clarity about what to include.

 

  1. Stay Organized

Keep track of who you asked, when you asked, and the deadlines for each letter. This organization ensures you don’t miss any important dates and allows you to follow up as needed without appearing disorganized or forgetful.

 

  1. Offer to Write a Draft

In some cases, your recommender might appreciate a draft letter that they can edit and personalize. This can save them time and ensure that the key points you want to be included are covered. However, this should be offered tactfully and only if you believe it will be helpful.

Letter writing is highly individualized, and different people will ask you for different things. Remember that you’re the one asking for a favor, so do whatever you can -within ethical boundaries- to help them help you.

 

  1. Understand the Format and Requirements

Different institutions may have specific requirements for letters of recommendation. Make sure your recommender is aware of these requirements, whether it’s a particular format, length, or topics that need to be covered. Providing this information upfront can help them write a letter that meets all necessary criteria.

This is especially important if letters have to be uploaded to particular portals. Make sure that you provide clear instructions and perhaps even offer to set it up for them if they haven’t already.

 

Conclusion

Securing a strong letter of recommendation requires careful planning, clear communication, and consideration for your recommender’s time and effort. By following these steps, you can ensure that your letters of recommendation are compelling, detailed, and tailored to support your application. At Gurufi, we’re here to help you through every step of the process, ensuring that your application stands out for all the right reasons. Good luck!

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

How to Build Powerful Med School Secondaries

A four-panel cartoon illustrating the journey of a medical school applicant. In the first panel, a weary student stands at the start of a long, winding path carrying a heavy backpack filled with books, a laptop, and papers. In the second panel, the student, looking even more exhausted, reaches a point where the path splits into multiple smaller paths. In the third panel, the student sits on a rock, looking at a map while a mentor figure offers a bottle and smiles encouragingly. In the fourth panel, the student appears confident and focused, writing on a laptop with papers spread out around them.
The journey of a medical school applicant: From initial preparations to mastering secondary essays, with guidance and perseverance leading to success.

Here at Gurufi, we spend much of the late summer and early fall working with hundreds of clients to perfect their medical school secondaries. In my experience, at this point, applicants are quite exhausted by the immense work it takes to get to this point: studying for and taking the MCAT, getting letters of rec, completing your prerequisite courses, supplementing your clinical experience, completing the AMCAS, and ironing out your personal statement and Word & Activities sections. Now, you must complete a dozen or more additional school-specific essays. This naturally leads people to wonder how they can complement their existing materials in ways that maximize the value and impact of their secondaries. This post seeks to help you craft powerful secondary essays.

Secondary essays provide an opportunity to showcase your unique qualities, experiences, and motivations that make you a suitable candidate a specific medical school. Crafting effective secondary essays requires thoughtful reflection and a strategic approach. Here’s how to respond to common secondary essay prompts and tailor your responses for different schools:

1. Understand the Purpose of Secondary Essays

Secondary essays allow admissions committees to learn more about you beyond your primary application. Moreover, because the admission committees of particular schools craft these essays, they reflect questions that the AdCom obviously cares about. They are designed to assess your fit for the specific program, your alignment with the school’s values, and your readiness for the challenges of medical school. Understanding this purpose will help you craft essays that effectively convey your qualifications and aspirations.

2. Research Each School Thoroughly

Before writing your secondary essays, conduct thorough research on each medical school you are applying to. Understand their mission, values, curriculum, and unique features. Familiarize yourself with their specific programs, faculty, research opportunities, and community involvement. Talk to people at the school, including both faculty and staff if you can. This research will enable you to tailor your responses to align with the school’s specific expectations and culture.

3. Address Common Secondary Essay Prompts

While each school may have unique prompts, some common themes often appear in secondary essays. Here are strategies for responding to these common prompts:

a. Why This School?

This prompt asks you to explain why you are interested in attending that particular medical school. Be specific and detailed in your response. Highlight aspects of the program that resonate with your career goals and interests. Mention unique opportunities, such as specific research programs, clinical experiences, or community service initiatives, that make the school a good fit for you. Demonstrating a genuine interest and thorough knowledge of the school will strengthen your response.

One thing to beware of is writing a “school brochure” where you simply list a series of things that you like about the school. This doesn’t show much more than that you have access to Google. If you can explain in depth, using examples from your past, a few things really well, that is much better than mentioning a bunch of things. As with personal statements, saying one or two things really well is better than saying a bunch of things poorly.

b. Describe a Challenge You’ve Overcome

This prompt seeks to understand your resilience and problem-solving abilities. Choose a significant challenge you have faced, either personally or professionally. Describe the context, the actions you took to address the challenge, and the lessons you learned from the experience. Focus on how the experience has prepared you for the rigors of medical school and a career in medicine.

c. Diversity and Inclusion

Many medical schools value diversity and seek to understand how you will contribute to a diverse and inclusive community. Reflect on your background, experiences, and perspectives that contribute to your unique identity. Discuss how your experiences with diversity have shaped your worldview and how you plan to promote inclusivity in medical school and your future career.

d. Significant Research Experience

If you have significant research experience, this prompt allows you to highlight your contributions to scientific knowledge. Describe your research project, your role, and the impact of your findings. Explain how this experience has influenced your interest in medicine and your future career goals. Emphasize any skills you developed, such as critical thinking, data analysis, or teamwork.

There are three additional points that I’d make with this prompt. First, writing about science can be hard. It’s difficult to balance accuracy, clarity, and complexity. As such, this is among the most difficult kinds of admissions writing and you may want to think about getting help with someone experienced and adept with this. (like Gurufi! ) Second, think about how you view the role of science and research as you move forward. Do you (be honest) intend to continue doing research in and beyond medical school? If so, think about including this, even if briefly, in your essay. Lastly, also think about your research experience in the same way that you wrote about an important job in your Work & Activities section: did you grow, improve, receive additional responsibilities, or earn a promotion?

  1. Professional Goals and Aspirations

    This prompt asks you to articulate your career goals and how the medical school will help you achieve them. Be clear and specific about your short-term and long-term goals. Explain how the school’s resources, faculty, and curriculum align with your aspirations. Demonstrating a clear vision for your future and how the school fits into that vision shows that you are focused and motivated.

    4. Tailor Your Responses

    Tailoring your responses for each school is essential to demonstrate your genuine interest and fit. Use the research you conducted to incorporate specific details about the school into your essays. Mention faculty members you are excited to work with, unique programs that align with your interests, and community initiatives that you want to be part of. Personalizing your essays shows that you have a sincere interest in the school and have thoughtfully considered how it aligns with your goals.

    5. Be Authentic and Reflective

    Authenticity is key to crafting compelling secondary essays. Be honest about your experiences, motivations, and aspirations. Reflect on your journey and share meaningful insights that provide a deeper understanding of who you are. Avoid generic statements and clichés. Instead, focus on specific examples and personal stories that illustrate your points.

    6. Show, Don’t Tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. I don’t love “show, don’t tell” as a piece of advice because it doesn’t feel actionable. You can get to the same idea by saying “tell a story and let the story demonstrate your traits.” Not as punchy, but more accurate. For example, instead of simply stating that you are passionate about medicine, provide examples that demonstrate your passion. Describe experiences that have solidified your commitment to the field and the actions you have taken to pursue your interest. This approach makes your essays more vivid and memorable.

If you need help with storytelling, check out this video. It was made for MBA applicants, but all of the core ideas apply to medical school applications. This other video also provides a useful way to attack the “show don’t tell” problem.

7. Edit and Revise

Writing effective secondary essays requires multiple drafts and revisions. After writing your initial draft, take a break and then revisit your essay with fresh eyes. Seek feedback from mentors, peers, or professional consultants to gain different perspectives. Revise your essays to improve clarity, coherence, and impact. Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation to ensure your essays are polished and professional.

BUT, do be judicious with who you send your essay to. Too many chefs spoil the broth.

Crafting effective secondary essays for medical school applications involves understanding the purpose of these essays, conducting thorough research, addressing common prompts thoughtfully, and tailoring your responses to each school. By being authentic, reflective, and detail-oriented, you can create compelling essays that resonate with admissions committees and enhance your chances of acceptance. Good luck with your applications!

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top medical schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.