Question of the Week: Ghostwriting a Recommendation Letter

Jan. 24, 2020

Question: I had a great summer internship and asked my mentor if they’d be willing to write one of my medical school letters of recommendation. He asked me to write it and said they’d sign off on whatever I wrote. I have never written a letter of recommendation and I’m uncomfortable with the idea, but I really think a letter that talks about this experience would be beneficial. What should I do?
Answer: I think that this is extremely unfair to applicants. Of course you shouldn’t be expected to know how your PI might write a letter and what perspectives they actually have about you. I’d recommend asking the recommender if you can have a follow up discussion. In advance of the discussion, prepare and send your mentor a packet of information for the writer that includes your resume, a short essay that includes some details about your background and motivation for medicine, and a bulleted list of the qualities that you feel that you demonstrated, with concrete examples of how you demonstrated them. Refer to the AAMC Letter Writer Guidelines and Core Competencies when putting this together (and share a copy of these with the recommender).
It’s possible that by providing this information and then following up with a meeting where you can discuss this, your PI will feel that he has enough information to write for you. If he still insists on your writing the letter, I’d try to get him to share his own observations and his feedback on what you’d sent him. Ask questions like, “What adjectives would you use to describe me?”, “How does my performance compare to past students you’ve mentored?”, “What do you think my best qualities are?” You may also ask for a past letter that he’s sent (with the name removed for confidentiality) so that you have something to use as a template to create this letter. If you also worked with a postdoc or another more established individual in the lab, you could ask them to write a draft and have the PI cosign it. It is also absolutely reasonable to forgo the letter and count on other letters.
This situation sometimes arises when you ask for a letter too close to a deadline and the writer feels they will not have time to properly write a letter. Be proactive and ask for letters at least a month in advance of any deadlines so that they will have plenty of time to write, or even further in advance if you know that they write a lot of letters of recommendation.

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