Behind the Scenes: How I Read a Residency Application

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

I thought it would be helpful to share my personal process for reading a residency application.  Evaluators will widely in what they are looking for, and this is especially true of residency applications.  Others go about the process very differently, but I did think it would be helpful to give a deep insight into my process, so you can get some perspective.

First, the residency application is organized in this way: standard application information (entered when you apply through the VIRMP), letter of intent, CV, transcripts, letters of recommendation.

The interesting information in the standard application is the education and references.  For education, I want to know if they graduated from an AVMA-accredited school or not. While I check the class rank, I don’t put much stock in it.  I glance at the references to see if there is anyone I know. If so, I make a note to contact them about the applicant. Unless there is some remarkable red flag- like graduating 10 years ago from a non-accredited program, having no letters of recommendation from anesthesiologists, or having no letters of recommendation from their current employer, I don’t make many decisions from the standard application.

I use the letter of intent as one of the most important ways to categorize applicants.  If the letter is more than one page, I may still evaluate the candidate, but they are fighting a real uphill battle getting a positive review from me.  I will read it in detail, making note of any grammar or spelling mistakes or any odd word or sentence structure choices. Once I decide the person paid an appropriate level of attention to detail to their application, I will read it for content, mostly trying to determine if they are humble, willing to work hard, and get along with others.

After the letter, it is on to evaluating the CV.  Here I check their professional progress to make sure they have the requirements for ACVAA credentials- specifically a rotating internship, which many international applicants do not have.  I make sure they have a clear professional progression. I look to see if they have teaching experience or substantive research experience, since both of those are important for a resident at an academic institution.  I also see if there is leadership experience in vet school or elsewhere in life. I also make sure they have some extracurriculars and make note of those for potential interview discussion inspiration.

The transcripts I ignore unless they are from a non-U. S. institution.  Then I review them enough to understand them and make sure the person didn’t get a batch of Ds or Fs.

The letters of recommendation are most useful from people I don’t know personally.  If I know the recommenders personally, I will reach out to them via email or phone to discuss the applicant.  Mostly what I look for in the letter of recommendation is who the writer is and how they know the applicant and what they have to say vis-a-vis the applicant’s personality.  My theory is I can teach any halfway competent veterinarian but, if they have a difficult personality, I CAN’T change that during a residency.  I want someone who is teachable, engaged, pleasant, positive, enthusiastic, and humble.

At the end, I will usually go back and skim the whole thing to make sure I didn’t miss anything important.  We don’t have many applicants in anesthesia, so I don’t usually make a complicated spreadsheet- I can keep track of the details of all the applicants without it.  Then I sit down with the other faculty and go through each applicant and decide to place them into one of four buckets: do not rank, or rank in one of three strata: top, middle, and bottom.

That’s my entire method.  It works for me but, again, may not be how everyone does things.  Particularly for those in high-demand specialties, I suspect their process is very different.  Talk to your mentors to find out if they think there is something particularly important, and post in the comments with your thoughts and concerns.

Behind the Scenes: How we Chose Interns

Image by Valentin Sabau from Pixabay

Before we start, you should know that every program does their intern selection process differently.  Evaluators care about different things. Some may use class rank as a cut point- they don’t evaluate anyone not in the top 25%, for example.  (You can’t do anything about this so stop worrying about it). Some may have a committee, or a single individual, or an advisory committee to a handful of decision-makers.  So, this is not universal. But I wanted to give you a peek into how I (and institutions where I have worked in the past) chose interns.

First, we would take all of the applicants and divide them according to school where they graduated.  Our committee was usually made up of 8 faculty members. Faculty would then pair up, so we had 4 pairs.  Each pair then indicated which schools they would evaluate applicants from. Usually this was based on people they knew at those schools.

Each pair then got all of the applicants from the schools they agreed to review.  The applicant pool was evenly divided among the pairs. Each pair then read all of the applications in their pool.  When I read applications, I made a spreadsheet with the applicant as a row, and then columns including letter of intent quality, references, leadership, teaching experience, research experience, class rank, CV, notes, and overall score.

I usually used a 4-point score: 4 for not-rankable, and 1-3 divided according to my estimation of them being in the top, middle, or bottom third of applicants.  Each applicant sent to the pair would be reviewed by both members of the pair. Then my partner and I would meet and discuss the applicants and agree to a score for each of our applicants.  Then each pair would send their ranking to the chair of the committee, who would organize them. We would all meet together as a committee and discuss the rankings, moving various applicants up or down according to information we had gleaned (e.g. by calling friends at institutions).

It was a huge effort and took a lot of time.  And, as it turns out, it’s probably meaningless.  In a study where we compared rank with intern performance, there was no relationship.  This is similar to interviews- they don’t really relate to the performance of a person in a position.  So we could probably accomplish this all with just randomly drawing the names out of a hat. But, like interviews, we FEEL like doing this process should improve our outcome, so we do it anyways.

Behind the Scenes: How I Read an Internship Application

Image by Alicja from Pixabay

I thought it would be helpful to share my personal process for reading an internship application.  This is a highly personalized process- please don’t assume that others go through the same process. Nonetheless, I thought it would be helpful to share what goes through my brain, so here it is:

First, the internship application through the match is organized like this: standard application information (entered when you apply through the VIRMP), letter of intent, CV, transcripts, letters of recommendation.

From the standard application, I scroll down to the veterinary education section.  I notice if they went to school at an AVMA-accredited program or an unaccredited program.  I note the class rank and graduation date. I glance at the references to get an impression of what sorts of letters they have.  Very little hard decisions are made at this step- it’s just collecting data.

The letter of intent is where I begin to apply some discrimination.  Is it more than one page? If so, I probably won’t read it unless it appears to be an _incredibly_ unusual applicant.  If it’s more than one page, I will review the rest of their materials to decide, “Is this person even worth considering?”  The vast majority of the time, the answer is “no”, so my job is done and I move onto the next. If the letter is one page or less, I skim it until I find an interesting, useful, unique piece of information, then read that segment in detail.  I also read for grammar and spelling errors. I consider how they structured concepts and what I learned about the applicant. The letter is extremely important to me and I will start to put the applicant into one of three bins- not rankable, rankable good, rankable OK.

For the CV, I check to see if they have any obvious gaps in professional progression not addressed in their letter of intent.  If so, this is a red flag. Have they done research- if so, what was their role? If they were the first author on a submitted publication, great.  Otherwise, I don’t think much of research experience. Did they have an officer role in a club? What is interesting about their experience? Did they travel?  How will I summarize this person in my Excel file where I track all applicants (see below)? The CV is not a major deciding factor for me but helps fill in the picture of the applicant.

The transcripts are fluff for me.  I skim them briefly to see if there are any “D” or “F” grades and, if so, in what subject they are.  If not, I spend no time on the transcripts unless they are from international applicants. In that case, I review them carefully to get an idea of what academic material this person has studied.

The letters of recommendation, with the letter of intent, form the greatest portion of my evaluation.  In the letters, I look at the qualifications of the letter writer, are they from the applicant’s current institution, how many interns they have worked with, and their connection with the applicant.  I then skim the ratings of clinical & technical skills and professionalism to see if there are any particularly low marks. Most of my time is spent reading the qualitative data provided in the remarks section.

In the qualitative remarks, I primarily look to see if the person is easy to work with, eager to learn and accept feedback and act in a positive, professional manner.  If the letter is not very detailed, that is also flagged as concerning. I will also look for indications of humility, eagerness to work, and emotional intelligence. It is rare to read a letter which is not laudatory, so I need to read between the lines.  Remarks which focus on the intelligence of the applicant, without mention of them being easy to work with, are flagged as problematic.

Once I have read through everything, I will go back and make notes in an Excel document which has the following column headings: name, class rank, education/experience, letter, clubs, miscellaneous, research, references, score.  I make short notes for each of these and then make a determination of placement: do not rank, rank in bottom third, rank in the middle third, rank in the top third.

So, that’s the process.  This forms the basis for some of my advice, and it may differ among evaluators.  Maybe some people care a LOT about research, maybe others ONLY consider the objective data provided in letters of recommendation.  However, in discussion with dozens of colleagues, most of them follow a similar process to that described here. So I think this is a helpful start for you to review.

Behind the Scenes: How I Interview Vet Student Applicants

At one institution where I was on faculty, we conducted student interviews a few times a year in batches.  If I was available, I always participated. The student interview serves fundamentally two functions:

  1. Illustrate to prospective students why that institution would be the best fit for them.
  2. Make sure that the prospective student is not a monster or clueless.

Along the lines of the first function, that primarily is accomplished in the tour, the presentation the Deans give, and questions that the faculty may answer during the interview.  The interviews usually lasted ~25 minutes, the first 20 of which would be the faculty asking the candidate questions and the last 5 minutes left for any questions the candidate had.  The most common question I got was, “What do you like about working here?” or “Why did you choose to come here?’ I always answered this question honestly and thoroughly, and believe my response put the institution in a positive light so that students may be more inclined to enroll there if given an offer.

The second function is ostensibly the reason why we interview prospective candidates.  We’re trying to find THE BEST and, to a lesser extent, the best fits for our program. Fortunately, almost every vet school can educate almost any candidate, so the ‘fit’ question is less important than, for example, an internship, or certainly a residency or faculty position.  So what do I look for to find THE BEST?

I personally focus on three characteristics: humility, eagerness to work hard, and emotional intelligence.  I am very sensitive to over-confidence and arrogance, and believe I can detect a lack of humility. Eagerness to work hard can be encapsulated by stories about overcoming adversity, dealing with difficult challenges, or evidence of grit- pursuing an Eagle Scout, black belt, being in the marching band, competing in sports at the collegiate level, and similar indicators of willingness to work hard.  Emotional intelligence I find very hard to pin down.

This is probably because there is a complex interaction of shyness, introversion, and actual emotional intelligence.  For example, you may have a shy, extroverted applicant who has very good or very poor emotional intelligence. Or a quiet, introverted person with very high emotional intelligence.  Unfortunately, the interview setting is intimidating to the shy and introverted, so pulling this information from them can be challenging. I always considered the applicant’s general personality in evaluating emotional intelligence and made sure to give them opportunities to demonstrate it.

Not mentioned, but assumed, is making sure the applicant isn’t Clueless.  I did one interview with an applicant who hadn’t ever worked with a vet, clearly had never asked anyone what vet school was like, and otherwise indicated they didn’t know what they were getting into.  I gave this applicant a poor score because if they DID get into vet school, they would most likely sink. We wanted to make sure our students would be successful, so wanted to make sure they had _some_ idea of what they were getting into.  As I’ve mentioned before, you have _no idea_ what vet school is like until you’ve lived it, but you can at least try to have some idea.

Also included in the second function is to make sure the applicant is not a monster.  By this I mean: will they be basically respectful of their fellow man? In short, are they an RFHB?  This can also be difficult to determine in an interview, but some red flags include: interrupting, talking down about other people, being dismissive towards others’ feelings, reveling in others’ unhappiness, and being disrespectful towards the interviewers.  Fortunately, I haven’t had a vet school interview go this way, but I have certainly seen other interviews where some of these happened. You can avoid being removed from consideration by just being a decent person.

Those are the ways I evaluated candidates.  Speaking with my peers, they tended to use a similar process and criteria.  Just as with any interview: be prepared, answer honestly, stay calm, and don’t try to be a show-off and everything should be fine.

Behind the Scenes Series

I was inspired to write a short series on how applications get evaluated throughout the academic process- for vet school, internship, residency, and faculty positions. Realize that these are idiosyncratic- my process is definitely different from other people’s processes. Nonetheless, I think it may be helpful/insightful. Enjoy these for the next two weeks!

Have a Life Mission Statement


Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Strategic planning is one of those oft-maligned phrases which stinks of corporate America.  It involves ideas like Vision and Values and all sorts of other things that companies claim to espouse but probably don’t follow in reality.  The principle of strategic planning is sitting down and figuring out what your organization is about and what it wants to do and usually includes a Mission Statement, a list of Values, and a Vision.  Mission statements are either overly long, encompassing everything an organization may do, or pithy and non-helpful, such as “We strive to be the premier provider of this service.” But are they really so unhelpful?

Strategic planning is the process of deciding what it is you want your organization to do, look like, act like, and feel like.  Theoretically, it should form the foundation for everything an entity does. When in doubt, consult the strategic plan. When a decision needs to be made, consult the strategic plan.  This simplifies decision making, makes sure everyone in the organization is on the same page, and creates a clear direction for leadership to pursue.

The problem with strategic planning isn’t the process or idea of the thing.  The problem is that it is so rarely done well. This is particularly egregious in the mission statement.

The mission statement _should_ be a concise, clear statement of the fundamental goal of the organization.  One of my favorite’s is Pepsi’s old “We sell soda”. I also like IKEA’s, “To create a better everyday life for the many people,” and TED, “Spread ideas.”

I like these because they are short, simple, and help guide the organization.  Someone pitches to Pepsi, “Hey, this whole bottled water thing is huge. What should we do?”  “Is it soda?” “No.” “Well, then we don’t sell it.” (Obviously, Pepsi changed this position later.)  IKEA wants to help EVERYDAY life for MANY people. Will they focus on luxury goods for the 1%? Of course not.  A discussion at TED, “I think we could do some really cool dynamic lighting for our next conference!” “Does it help spread ideas?”  “Well, no, but it will look amazing!” Mission statements should present a CLEAR direction.

Instead, mission statements often drone on and get endlessly bogged down and watered down.  Here are some examples of mission statements I like less:

 McDonald’s: “McDonald’s brand mission is to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat and drink.  Our worldwide operations are aligned around a global strategy called the Plan to Win, which centers on an exceptional customer experience–People, Products, Place, Price, and Promotion.”

What are you saying?  Why tell us about your operations in your mission statement?  Maybe if they had stopped at the first sentence I would be more on board.

An undisclosed vet school: “The mission of the CVM is to improve the health of animals and people by: 1) discovering and disseminating new knowledge and skills, 2) educating current and future veterinarians and biomedical scientists, and 3) providing innovative veterinary services.”

Another: “The College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to the enhancement of the health and well-being of animals and human beings through excellence in education, research, professional practice and committed service to the State, the nation and the world.”

Okay, yes… you are a vet school.  Of course you do teaching, research, and service.  These are mission statements which are so obvious and generic that they are unhelpful for guiding the organization.

Contrast these with some mission statements from vet schools I like:

“Our mission is to advance the health of animals, people, and the environment.”

BOOM!  “Should we hire a systems engineer?” “Will it advance the health of animals, people, or environment?”  “Yes” “Then do it.” “Should we hire an astrophysicist?” “Will it advance the health of animals, people, or environment?”  “No” “Then don’t do it.”

“[Our organization’s] mission is to lead the advancement of health and science for the betterment of animals, humans, and their environment.”

LEADING the advancement, not just following.  For the BETTERMENT- this may include physical health, psychological health, or arguably life improvements.

OK, now you know what a mission statement is and my preferences, I would like you to think of a mission statement for yourself.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Keep it short.  One sentence or less.
  2. It CAN change over time!  You don’t need to set in stone your whole purpose in life now.
  3. This may be really hard, particularly if you are early in your career.
  4. You may not be generic.  No “I want to help animals.”

What is the purpose of this exercise?  Well, like an organization’s mission statement, it may help guide your decision making.  Many veterinary professionals are familiar with the idea that they constantly get asked to do things, and if they keep saying “yes”, they will have no time for themselves or what they want to do.  If you have a mission statement, it can help guide your decision making. Let’s use mine as an example.

“I help people be better,” is my current mission statement.  It has been through a few iterations. First, it’s not perfect- it’s probably a little too simplistic.  I like it because it reminds me of some core ideas I like: Kaizen and self-determination theory. It pulls in every major thing I have done in my life: Boy Scouts, martial arts, dancing, veterinary medicine, relationships.  It’s focused on skill building and maximizing self-actualization. So now let’s put it into practice.

“Vetducator, can you help me with some statistics on this project?”  If it’s just plugging some numbers like an automaton, “no”. If it’s helping them learn a little about statistics while running some numbers, and contributing to a quality manuscript which will improve their CV or prepare them for boards, “yes”.

“Vetducator, would you like to add video and podcasts to the blog?”  Well, these things will probably help people with their career and life, so yes.

“Vetducator, do you want to write this book chapter?”  Have I written one before? If not, I might develop or learn a new skill.  If I’m not learning something, will this help others grow as people? Possibly, depending on the subject.

Your life mission statement can be general for your entire life, like mine, or you could focus it just on your professional pursuits.  It may not be for everyone, and I thought it was a bit hokey at first. The more time has passed, the more useful I have found having a life mission statement to be.  I at least recommend you work through the process to help distill what you really want to do with your life.

Post in the comments with what you think your life mission statement might be.  I will comment on the first ten to post! This is a developmental process- post an imperfect one- you can always get better!

6 Steps to Being a Professional via Email

I was talking to a surgeon friend of mine about applicants for their surgery internship program.  She told me they had three general pools- amazing, middling, and not-ranking. She emailed one applicant from each pool to set up a time to chat about the program.  Their responses fell out exactly as the group had already placed them.

The not-rankable applicant replied 4 days after the initial email, on Jan. 4th, “Hey, that sounds good.  How about 1/6 at 5pm?”

First, there was no address line.  Second, they only provided a single time.  Third, my friend had clearly instructed the applicants to schedule time the week of 1/7. Fourth, they were proposing a weekend, which is a bit of an imposition. Fifth, they only gave my friend 2 days to figure out the scheduling.  Clearly, this person does not have their act together, so will not be ranked.

The middling applicant replied within 24 hours, “Dear Dr. X, thank you for the offer.  I am available 1/7 at 11am or 1/8 at 12pm.”

This applicant included a form of address and provided two options during the week indicated.  A fairly reasonable response, so clearly a decent applicant. However, the applicant did not confirm the date once it was set or check in the day before. Furthermore, the applicant then did not answer the phone at the appointed time, moving them pretty close to the ‘not ranking’ pool.

The amazing applicant replied within 4 hours, “Dear Dr. X, thank you so much for the offer to talk.  I am very interested to hear about your program. I am available the following times: 1/7 11am, 1/8 12pm, 1/9 3pm.  Please let me know which works best for you, or if there is another time which would be better. Thank you again and I look forward to speaking with you.”

This applicant is clearly enthusiastic, appreciative, and engaged.  They had a rapid response, gave numerous options, and overall just presented a proper, professional image via email.  They also followed up 24 hours before the set time to confirm the day and time. Of COURSE they’re at the top of the applicant pile.

Responding professionally in an email does not seem particularly burdensome to me, but from this small sample, we can see that it is a skill which not everyone possesses.  And these are applicants for a surgery internship, who have done a rotating internship already, and, presumably, want an extremely exclusive position as a surgery resident.

EVERY email my surgeon friend gets from these applicants should be impeccable. How in the world do these applicants think they are ever going to get a residency position?  Okay, enough of my ranting, here’s what you have to do, Applicants of the World:

1) Respond promptly. This doesn’t necessarily mean in the same hour, but if you can respond the same day, that indicates you are enthusiastic and eager.  “But what if I’m in surgery all day!” Sure, but you do go home eventually, don’t you? When you do, send a reply.

2) Demonstrate enthusiasm.  Yes, you may be enthusiastic on the inside, but if you can’t express that, the reader does not know.  Show your enthusiasm in your word choice and what you say.

3) Be courteous. Respect the recipient’s time and energy.  If they are trying to schedule a time with you, give THEM as many options as possible and be willing to defer your time for theirs.  Don’t expect them to move their schedule for yours. Give plenty of notice.

4) Follow up.  If you have communicated about an appointment, send an email to confirm the day before.  If you have sent an email and don’t hear back, send a check-in message.

5) Use a form of address.  This one’s simple. In professional correspondence with people you do not know, address them properly in the email.  “Dear Dr. X,” or “Dear Mr./Ms. Y.” It’s not hard, it doesn’t take much time, it doesn’t cost any more. Why NOT do this?

6) Proofread.  Always proof your emails before sending them out.  I’d say a solid 10% of my own emails have some kind of typo I pick up after writing them which I would not have noticed if I hadn’t proofed them.

So, there you go.  Pretty simple steps to make sure your emails get perceived as professional.  Please share this around so that every email I get from now on will be wonderfully polished.

How to do Meaningful Research as an Undergrad

So, you’ve decided you want to try out the world of scientific research!  Good for you. You may have fun and love it or you may discover it is not for you.  We’ve talked about the benefits before, so now let’s drill down on the nitty-gritty.  How do you get involved?

If it exists on your campus, I suggest you make your first stop the undergraduate research office.  These people have a wealth of information and can help you identify mentors and explain what the research program is like at the school.  At one institution where I worked, there was a whole undergrad research program, including classes and a distinction you could earn by completing a research thesis. I would routinely get emails from the undergrad office about students looking to do research.

If survey courses about research exist on your campus, these can be excellent resources to check the water and see if you may like it.  At one institution where I worked, faculty could offer 1-credit small seminar courses in research. I routinely taught one in Clinical Research and enjoyed showing the undergrads all the opportunities which exist.  I brought in guest speakers and some of the students ended up working with them. Other students in the class asked me to direct them to potential mentors.

You may be able to search for faculty research interests on your institution’s website and then contact those which interest you.  I’ll write a later post about how to email potential research mentors. Realize if you are ‘cold emailing’ you may not get a response, so come up with a backup plan.  Creating a short list of potential mentors is the safe bet.

Finally, if you have had any contact with a faculty member with whom you think you could get along, you can reach out to them.  This is probably a faculty member teaching a small, upper-level course and who may know your name. It’s usually best to make this request near the end of the semester or at the start of the next one, to avoid any appearance of bias during the course.

Once you have an appointment scheduled with a potential research mentor, treat it like an interview.  Ask them questions about how they like to work with undergrads. Remember, the purpose of this is to find out if you’re a good fit- you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Be sure to ask what your responsibilities will be, if you will be an author on an eventual publication, with whom you will be working, and what the time commitment is.

If you decide to pursue research, make sure to do it well.  Show up, be enthusiastic, and be helpful. What questions do you have about how to get involved in research?

Why Do I Do This Blog?

Jerry feels my pain.

I was listening to The White Coat Investor’s podcast interview with Dr. Bonnie. Regarding her motivation to write a blog, she said she was “…getting tired of writing the same answers over and over again….”  This Spoke to me so strongly, it inspired me to write this entire post. THIS. This is my motivation. I want you all to Be Better, and I could only reach a handful of students at my home institution, and I got tired of giving the same advice, year after year.  These are basic, important, and fundamental principles to advancing your career. Let’s do a brief review.

1) Care about your application. THIS IS YOUR LIFE! You spent how many years and hours of sweat and tears to apply to and get through undergrad to get to vet school, and you’re just going to leave the rest to chance?  WTH? You need to care about your application for your next step at least as much as you cared about everything to GET you there! Polish your materials. Read blog posts and do your research. The amount of time you need to move from an OK application to a Good application is nominal, and I am still shocked that people don’t take this simple step.

2) Be a god-damned professional.  I didn’t think this was hard or needed to be said, but it does.  The items in the How to be Successful series are, in my mind, simple and self-evident, but I have learned this is not universally true.  If you want to get ahead, you have to be Good, not Adequate. Push ahead, never give up, and keep getting better.

3) Interview well.  I understand interviewing is challenging.  It is a rare event, so it is hard to get much skill acquisition.  There is often a lot riding on it, so it is high stakes. For these reasons, you MUST prepare and practice.  There is not an alternative if you want to advance your career.

4) Be positive. I’m not talking about bouncy-bubbly-always-on personality.  I mean: do you bring PROBLEMS or do you bring SOLUTIONS? The latter type of people get ahead, the former just makes everything worse.

I tried to think of a fifth point, and I couldn’t.  This is it. It is simple. Please, for my sake, just do a little bit of work on the culmination of your whole professional life to this point.  Help me help you.

Internship Letter Mistakes

This is a specialized version of a post I have about general application letter writing advice, aimed at intern applicants.

Writing an internship application letter is hard.  I’m sorry. Intern applicant evaluators are so widely varied, you can’t possibly write the ideal letter unless you happen to A) know the evaluators and B) apply to only one institution.  Fortunately, there are some “wrong” ways to write an intern letter. Let’s look at them.

First, think from the evaluator’s standpoint.  They have a monumental challenge- reviewing possibly several hundred applicants for a handful of positions.  It is a grueling, churning, time-sucking task that they get very little thanks for. If you give them the opportunity to rapidly assess your letter as not-rankable, it saves them the trouble of reading your CV and letters of recommendation and thus saves them time.

Here are the rules to keep your letter from getting tossed into the do-not-rank pile.

One page or less.  I know some evaluators read two-page letters.  I know more who use this as an instant rejection.  You should be able to express yourself succinctly.

Good grammar and spelling. This may seem obvious, but I would say a full 20% of letters I read fail this test.  Have other people read your letter _carefully_ with a fine-toothed comb and make sure they are brutally honest.

Good use of English.  This one is hard for non-native speakers, but it is very obvious when it is present.  If your English is good but not native, find several native speakers to review and correct it.  We use language in odd ways in English.  The Japanese small old car is technically correct but does not sound the same as the small old Japanese car.

Avoid a TOO-unique letter.  We will talk about injecting your own style when we discuss the DOs of letter writing, but if your letter is quirky or eccentric, this may work for some evaluators but not for others.  This is highly polarizing with people who feel very strongly on both sides. Don’t risk it.

Don’t use odd word choices or excessive Thesaurus use.  This may not get you an instant rejection, but in a study where we analyzed intern applicant letters, letters that had odd word choices and excessive Thesaurus use consistently ranked lower. Keep it simple.

Don’t be boastful or arrogant.  I think there is some advice out there on the internet that you need to be assertive and confident in your application letters.  Maybe this is true for business, but it is not true in academia. In our study, none of the evaluators indicated ‘confidence’ as an important characteristic of a letter writer.  Some people may not notice or care about this, but I know many evaluators find those who display arrogance in their letter and veto their application.

Some examples: “I am confident  about my general medical knowledge across different fields…”, “I am highly motivated, quick to understand medical topics, detail oriented and capable of multitasking. I have the ability to get along well with just about anyone.”, and “I achieved a 4.0 GPA my first semester and eventually finished my studies at Unseen University in the top 5% of my class and as a member of Phi Zeta.”

As noted in the introduction, evaluators are an extremely heterogeneous group, and you can’t possibly avoid all pitfalls of all evaluators.  Maybe some don’t like anything other than a five-paragraph-essay format. Maybe others will reject any letter with the word “yellow” in it. It’s impossible to predict all the things evaluators may reject you on.  However, in my experience (and our research), these were the most prominent, consistent, and important. Write your letters accordingly and, if you need help, please reach out to me.