Advice for Recommendation Writers

The Office of Health Professions Advising is aware of the substantial time commitment involved in writing letters of recommendation, and we would like to thank you for your efforts. As one of a group of letters written on behalf of applicants, yours is essential to the admissions process. A persuasive recommendation letter can have a significant impact on an applicant’s candidacy during this competitive process. After reading this material, if you have questions about writing letters or the professional school application process, do not hesitate to contact us at (609) 258-3144, [email protected].

Preparing to Write

  • We recommend that professional school applicants meet with each potential writer and have a conversation about the letter. As a writer, think carefully about how well you know the individual asking for a reference. If for any reason you do not feel that you can write positively on an applicant’s behalf, be honest with them and decline to write the letter. A negative or vague letter can be detrimental to an applicant’s candidacy.
  • If they do not offer it to you, ask the applicant to provide you with a resume/CV, short essay about themselves and their motivation for their career, examples of classwork, and/or other materials that better inform/remind you of their candidacy.
  • Some evaluators choose to meet with applicants to discuss their qualifications, motivation for career, etc.
  • It is acceptable for individuals who have worked with students within the same context (e.g., two mentors in a research experience; a professor and a preceptor in a class) to co-write and co-sign one letter of recommendation. A student may approach you asking for this type of letter and it is at your discretion to determine whether to write together or separately.
  • A few applicants will apply to more than one professional program in the same year (most frequently to MD and MD/PhD programs) and request letters for both programs, specifying any differences in focus that may be required.  

Content of Letters

Your letter will be included in its entirety, without excerpt or change (save for spelling/typographical errors) to the admissions committees of health professional school programs. We may also include quotes from your letter in the HPA committee letter of recommendation.

  • Please indicate how long you have known the applicant and in what context.
  • If you worked with the student in an academic setting, discuss their performance, including the nature of the course(s), difficulty of coursework/concentration, notable work assignments, improvements over the course of the term, etc. Clarify any Princeton-specific terms.
  • In addition to academic abilities, medical schools are particularly interested in evidence that the applicant demonstrates certain core competencies, including:
    • Scientific and quantitative reasoning
    • Critical thinking
    • Oral and written communication
    • Ethical responsibility to self and others
    • Reliability and dependability
    • Resilience and adaptability
    • Capacity for improvement
    • Service orientation
    • Social and interpersonal skills
    • Cultural competence
    • Teamwork

Specific anecdotes that detail how the applicant has demonstrated these competencies are valuable.

  • Comment on attitude, character, interpersonal skills, and special accomplishments of the applicant. 
  • If possible, evaluate the applicant’s potential for becoming the kind of doctor you might like to see in the field. How has the applicant demonstrated a commitment to medicine? What qualities about the applicant will make them a good doctor?
  • When possible and if you believe it to be in the best interest of the student, please rank the applicant among other students you have known.
  • You may wish to conclude your letter with a reaffirmation of your endorsement of the applicant’s candidacy and offer to answer follow-up questions if necessary (and include contact information to facilitate follow-up).

What to Avoid

  • Do not speculate. Be as specific and factual as possible. Give concrete examples to illustrate your characterizations of the applicant. Base your statements on observations and information obtained through direct contact with the applicant or their school record.
  • Unless you have discussed it with the applicant and it is relevant to your reference, avoid discussing an individual’s race, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, citizenship status, or marital status. Also avoid commenting on an applicant’s appearance, family background, health, or other personal circumstances unless they are immediately relevant.
  • Applicants should not be asked to write their own letters of recommendation. Having a conversation with an applicant to discuss what information you might highlight based on your work with them is appropriate, but asking them to draft their own letter is not.

Letters From Multiple Writers

  • If more than one individual (e.g., two members of a research lab, or a faculty member and preceptor) write a letter together, the pronoun “we” should be used throughout the letter and it should be co-signed, ideally, if possible. However, a letter written only by a preceptor is acceptable to schools as long as the author is a candidate for an advanced degree.

Submitting Your Letter

  • Please submit your comments typed in letter form, on letterhead stationery, bearing the date, your name, title and signature.
  • Work with the applicant to determine a deadline for the letter. The applicant will be at a disadvantage if letters are received later than early June.
  • Students will request letters through Interfolio, the online letter collection service. 
    • If you cannot use Interfolio, Princeton recommenders may submit letters from their Princeton email address. Off-campus recommenders must mail a hard copy of the letter to our office.
    • If the student is applying to a different professional program (e.g., dental, veterinary), they will provide details on how to submit letters.
  • Upload your letter into the online recommendation system in PDF or Word formats only. 
  • You must submit your letter of reference in English. If your English is not sufficient to convey complex ideas, write the letter in your native language and ask a colleague to translate. If you have no one available to translate, the applicant will work with our office to find a translator.
  • There is no word limit for your reference letter, though most recommenders will find 1-2 pages sufficient. 

Waiver of Rights of Access and Use of Letters

  • Per the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), applicants indicate to our office whether or not they waive their right of access to read your letter. Schools prefer that students waive their rights of access. If you'd like to know whether or not a student have waived their rights of access, feel free to be in touch. 
  • A copy of the letter may also be used in support of the applicant's candidacy for prizes or awards for which they may be nominated, or for fellowships, grants or scholarships for which they may apply, at HPA’s discretion. We will not release a letter for any other purpose. Please retain a copy of your letter should the applicant request it from you for other purposes (e.g., jobs, internships).

For additional guidance