How To Choose Quality References for Letters of Recommendation

More often than not, applicants don’t focus enough of their attention on their letters of recommendation.  Many pick a handful of references, provide them with the information needed to submit their recommendations, and completely forget about them.  While you can’t involve yourself to the point where you’re editing your own letters of recommendation, an outstanding letter of recommendation could very well be the difference between landing an interview and being passed over by admissions committees.

You may be wondering, “If I meet all of the program’s requirements and have the characteristics of a successful PA, why should I be worried about being rejected by admissions?” The fact of the matter is that many schools are overloaded with candidates and need some type of differentiator to help influence their decisions.

Think of it like this: when you’re shopping online or choosing somewhere to eat, you often check the reviews and feedback from others to influence your final decision. Admissions committees treat your letters of recommendation the same way! When they’re on the fence about your qualifications or experience, they turn to your letters of recommendation to make a final decision about your competence and character.

So, if your letters of recommendation as more or less “reviews” of your personality and abilities, how can you ensure they’re all 5-stars?

Choosing high-quality references is a critical step in this process. You’ll want to make sure the majority of your references meet the following criteria:

  • Practices in some field of medicine
  • Has first-hand experience of how you interact with patients
  • Supports you as an applicant
  • Has known you for a significant amount of time

If you can only find a handful of references that check all of these boxes, a professor of a related prerequisite class (such as anatomy, biology, chemistry, etc.) can also work well. These individuals should be able to speak to your academic ability, particularly in the fields of science and medicine.

It should go without saying, but don’t ever ask for letters of recommendation from family members or friends. In addition, you should only ask someone to be a reference if they know you well and have known you for a significant amount of time. Asking someone who you’ve only interacted with a few times or choosing someone solely based on their credentials may result in an ineffective or suspicious letter.  It doesn’t matter what the recommender’s title or credentials may be, the content and intent of the letter is truly what matters.

Regardless of whom you choose to write your letters of recommendation, the letters themselves should be well written and enthusiastically sell you as a candidate. Keep this in mind when choosing who you’d like to have as a reference. For example, you may have a very well connected contact that would be happy to be a reference, but they have an impossibly busy schedule and won’t be able to dedicate time to writing an outstanding latter. Alternatively, you could choose a veteran medical professional who has all the time in the world but isn’t a very good writer (or is just plain unenthusiastic). Neither of these options are an ideal choice because their letters may not do a very good job of convincing the admissions committee that you’re the absolute best choice for the program.

If you have issues finding quality references or find that your references are unbalanced, take some time to make a contact list.  Go through all of your academic records, work experience, and shadowing opportunities and gather the names and contact information for anyone you think might write a letter for you.  Once you have all of the options listed in front of you in one place, it’ll be much easier to choose a powerhouse team of references who would be more than happy to write outstanding letters for you.