January 2011

Effective letters of evaluation: what to leave in, what to leave out and how best to prepare

Preparing letters of evaluation constitutes an important professional responsibility, one that takes a considerable amount of time – especially when there can be so many requests. Here are some tips on what to include and what to leave out.


It is the end of a long day with an even longer list of deadlines looming: grants to review, papers to write and a dissertation whose editing can no longer be put off. Just as you are about to make a clean getaway for home, you hear a timid knock on your door. You know what time of year it is, but you answer anyway. “Hey, Doc,” says the bright-eyed young student in the doorway, “can you write a letter of support for my application?” Knowing that this is a good student about whom you have plenty to write, you smile, sigh a bit inside, nod yes and add the letter to your to-do list.

Preparing letters of evaluation constitutes an important professional responsibility, one that takes a considerable amount of time – especially when there can be so many requests. Since many of the applicants to graduate school, medical school or entry-level jobs will possess comparable numeric credentials, letters of evaluation often serve as the tie-breaker that determines who will be selected. Perhaps even more importantly, your letter can make the case for that good student whose grades and scores for whatever reason fail to reflect his or her accomplishments and future potential.

Although students generally will request that you write a letter of recommendation, in most instances the recipient is expecting a letter of evaluation. The former implies an expectation of unequivocal support, whereas the latter is more candid. The advantages of a letter of evaluation for those reviewing an applicant are obvious. What students often fail to appreciate is that, when dealing with an experienced reader, a balanced letter frequently yields greater benefits for the candidate than one whose unqualified praise may undermine the writer’s credibility. Asking whether the recipient is expecting a letter of recommendation or a letter of evaluation is a simple and direct way to educate a student as to the difference and to insure that requestor and writer share common expectations.

In order to write an informed letter, the author needs complete and accurate information about the candidate’s qualifications and goals as well as the nature of the position to which he or she is applying. Experienced letter writers often present students with a set of instructions for listing the information needed. Common items include the full, legal name of the requestor; the correct name and address of the recipient; the student’s GPA, grades in key courses, or a transcript; GRE or MCAT scores; undergraduate or other research experience (including publications, abstracts and presentations); and awards. Other potentially useful information includes a copy of the job description or a link to the program or investigator to which the candidate is applying, a statement from the candidate as to why he or she wants the position, and examples of relevant experience or skills. Often, faculty members will set up a web page where student requestors can enter this information and answer questions. The more specific and detailed the information the letter writer gathers up front, the easier it will be to write a letter of evaluation that exhibits the substance and depth that will establish the credibility of the writer and his or her overall recommendation.

Writing the letter

Now that you’ve gathered your information about the candidate and sequestered yourself away from interruptions, it’s time to get started on the letter. Introduce yourself and describe how you came to know the candidate. This informs the reviewer of how long you have known and how well you know the applicant, helping them to determine how much depth to expect regarding specific topics and how much weight they should place on the letter as a whole. Many evaluators, particularly when writing about a student whose candidacy they strongly support, will try to set the tone for the letter by offering a sentence or two summarizing the bottom line:

 X is a highly self-motivated student who will do what it takes to succeed in graduate school.
 X is an exceptional trainee with the potential to develop into an outstanding principal investigator.
 
The next three or four paragraphs should discuss specifically the qualities of the candidate, starting with his or her strengths. In general, it is best to start with what you consider to be the candidate’s greatest strength. If you start with “intrinsically curious and highly-self motivated,” this implies a much, much higher upside than “knows the literature well.” Qualities commonly addressed in a letter of evaluation include academic potential and acumen, motivation and work ethic, maturity and commitment, critical thinking and problem solving ability, communication skills, ability to deal with challenges and disappointment, and ability to work with others. When selecting the strengths to be emphasized, it may be helpful to consider the interests of the readers. Medical school admissions personnel frequently look for evidence of leadership, empathy and a patient-centered view. Graduate programs and industrial managers value independence and hands-on experience.

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COMMENTS:

Having just finished the fall onslaught of letters for grad and medical schools I heartily applaud Joe's and Peter's recommendations. I would add an addendum though. Whereas the AMCAS letters must be one page only, for grad schools it is sometimes a temptation to be more descriptive of a students achievements and accomplishments; therefore those letters might become several pages in length. Unfortunately, some graduate institutions set word limits requiring drastic cutting of the letter. Take the time to see what the size limits (pages or characters) are prior to beginning this arduous, but important, task. James T. Hazzard, Univ. of Arizona

 

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