What Should a Letter of Recommendation Say?

I have already advised you to make sure you ask for a GOOD letter of recommendation.  The problem is, you usually can’t see the letter before it is submitted, so it’s impossible to know if it is good or not.  Nonetheless, there are some features of letters of recommendation that you want to make sure get included. Let’s review those features, then discuss how you can maybe make sure they get included in your letters.

  1. Competence.  No one wants to take an incompetent student as an intern and go through the work of training them up.  Students entering vet school are assumed to be incompetent as veterinarians- that’s why they’re going to vet school.  But they should be at least competent students- able to study, learn information, and pass assessments.
  2. Hard working.  No one wants to work with a lazy person.  No. One.
  3. Pleasant/Positive/Easy to Work With.  As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to be a bubbly happy always-on perfect extrovert.  But you DO have to make sure your letter writers LIKE working with you and will tell others they did so.  No one wants to work with someone who’s difficult to work with.
  4. Teachable.  If you are applying for a training program, being open to being taught is absolutely essential.  You want letter writers to make it clear you are eager to learn and willing to learn. Students who are resistant to being taught are very frustrating to work with.  Sometimes letter writers include intelligence in this domain. I think that’s fine, but I’ve known plenty of smart people who KNOW they are smart; consequently they believe they have nothing to learn.  Being smart is not sufficient.

These are the features I look for and believe are important.  Others may differ- evaluators are a highly heterogenous group.  But I believe you can’t go wrong having a recommendation letter say you are good at these things.  So, this is what you want on your letter. How do you make sure these elements are included? Here are two strategies, with their benefits and pitfalls specified.

  1. Ask the letter writer to mention something specific.  This is particularly helpful if the letter writer does not do a lot of letters of recommendation– for example the general practice vet you worked for.  You may be able to ask for 1-2 specific items. You can phrase this as, “For this program, they are particularly interested in my ability to follow through and take orders positively.”  A more general ask may be, “I’d particularly appreciate if you can comment on my work ethic and how I am to work with.” The benefit of this approach is that you are much more likely to have it included if you ask for it.  The pitfalls are two-fold. One, you may offend the letter writer. Two, they may do as you ask, but you may not be a very hard worker, so they may include that when they otherwise wouldn’t have.
  2. Be amazing.  Look, if you want to get a letter of recommendation where they say you work hard, it’s simple: WORK HARD.  Follow all the suggestions in the How to Be Successful Series. Be the hardest, best, most competent person out there, so you KNOW your letter writers will see and acknowledge those qualities.

So, that’s what you want people to write and a couple suggestions on how to get them to write it.  What do you think? Anything else that should be added?

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