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Well…. Letters of reference/Recommendation. It is by far one of the most important parts of your application to residency programs. Who you choose to write your reference letter and what the letter writers say about you can definitely make or break your application and your chances of an interview. Below are some of my personal experiences with reference letters for residency applications: who to ask, when to ask, how to ask, what information to give letter writers, and how to navigate the Phorcas LOR website.
Huge disclaimer: This is entirely what I did and what worked for me, which in no way means you have to follow similar methods to be successful.
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First of all, something to know if you haven’t heard of it. Did you know that your letter writers don’t write you real letters? Instead, it is a form where they provide scores for certain categories and comment on those attributes. Below is a narrative section where they write more information, and finally click on a button that indicates “highly recommend, recommend, recommend with reservations or do not recommend”. It’s safe to say that you want all of your letter writers to choose the “highly recommended” option. Wondering what this shape looks like? I’ve included a screenshot of it below, but you can also Google it! Here is a link to the ASHP PhorCAS Reference Letter form.
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Also, as I explain in more detail below, your letter writers only need to fill out this form once, even if you send them multiple requests (for example, if you want them to fill out a different form for different programs). Letter writers fill out this form once, and when they go out to fill out the next one, it automatically transfers all the most important information. The only part that will change is the last field “Enter some comments about the applicant’s eligibility for a particular program”.
Plan to ask at least 3-4 people for reference letters. Most programs ask for 3 (and NEVER send more letters than they ask for), and one program I applied to last year asked for 4. There are several factors to consider when deciding who to ask.
Be sure to make sure your cover letters fit the structure of the programs you are applying for. This was especially important to me because I applied to several PGY1s focused on ambulatory care. It’s safe to say that if you’re applying to traditional PGY1 clinical programs, most (if not all) of the letter writers should be instructors (or internship directors/supervisors/etc.) who can speak to patient clinical knowledge and experience. . If you are applying for PGY1s focused on ambulatory care, make sure you have at least 1 ambulatory care instructor who has seen you in this setting. The same goes for the Health System Pharmacy Administrative (HSPA) residency – make sure one of your writers is an administrator! You can never go wrong with any APPE instructor when applying for a clinical residency.
That’s huge, and probably not a big surprise. Be sure to consider how much time you’ve spent with the letter writer and whether they can really talk about any experiences or activities they’ve seen you work on. For example, if you shadowed a pharmacy director at a hospital for a day and had a wonderful day with them, you might be tempted to ask them for an LOR because their name carries a lot of weight. But there is no way this person knows you on a personal level to talk about your strengths, weaknesses and abilities as a resident! And just FYI – this is where the clinical pharmacy instructors at CLUCH come in. Spending 4-6 weeks with 1 teacher means they can absolutely speak to what residency programs are looking for.
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Another thing to think carefully about. Even if you have spent a full month with a preparer, make sure they are willing to write you a POSITIVE briefing. Remember that you want them to be able to check the “highly recommended” box. Think about your reviews, did your presenters really write good and positive things? did they seem to care about your growth and success? Even if you feel like you had to ask a million questions and come out of the rotation still feeling like you don’t know anything (ie me in the pediatric intensive care unit), did they talk about your morale and progress during the month? Don’t overthink this – most of the time, unless you’ve really been with someone, teachers expect you to write letters to a lot of their students. Please ask them! (more on this below)
Another classic question – for which there is NO right answer. There is certainly no “perfect combination” of letters you must have to qualify for housing. The most important thing to think about is “can these people talk about how they would do as a pharmacy resident.” All of these types of people are excellent choices for LOR writers, as long as you remember the three things mentioned above. I had 3 teachers (1 inpatient, 1 outpatient, and 1 administrative teacher) and 1 teacher (who worked as a professor and whom I TA’d) that I just used as the fourth LOR writer for the programs. This was the right decision for me, as I typically applied to PGY1s focused on ambulatory care, which still required inpatient rotations. Everyone will be different, so don’t compare your letter writers to your friends/peers!
Earlier is always better, so your letter writers know what to expect in December. At the end of the rotation during the final evaluation? It’s a wonderful time, and probably when most people are waiting for it. If you are a P4, I assume you must have asked your lettermen at this point. If you’re a P3 or below, here’s an extra tip I learned from a resident that I thought was really helpful! If you’re starting your rotation and you pretty much know you want to ask for a letter of recommendation from this person, don’t be afraid to ask at the MIDPOINT assessment. I did this for 2 teachers and thought it was very helpful! I put it this way: “By the end of this rotation, I would really like to get a letter of recommendation from you for my residency applications. What specific things can I work on in the second half of my rotation to be sure and get a STRONG reference letter from you?” .I like this method because A) it lets your teacher know that you want a letter from them, so you can start making mental notes of things to write in your letter, and B) their answer to this question can inform you of specific things.work to GUARANTEE you get that strong letter from them.
After you have asked the supervisor, it is very helpful to send them a follow-up email in November or early December reminding them of your request and asking if they are still willing to write a LOR for you. This is especially useful if you asked this teacher back in May (like I did)!
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Ok, I especially want to say this again – just because a method worked for me, does NOT mean you have to repeat what I did to be successful. I’ve had many friends who provided similar information to their letter writers, but did so in a very different way, so be sure to find out what works for you! However, I have provided my letter writers with some key documents that I feel have helped my letter writers tremendously and hopefully put them together very well to complete the reference form. I gave each of my letter writers 2 documents: A) a one page summary of my rotations or experiences with them, as well as my short and long term goals and B) a spreadsheet listing all the programs I applied to, the program. . requirements for LOR writers and why I am interested in these programs.
An example of a phone information document I filled out for one of my letter writers. The top part (short-term and long-term goals) was the same for all documents.
I copied this document for all my letter writers. At the top, I listed my short and long term career goals. At the bottom, I listed any information I could think of about what I worked on or experienced during their rotation. This included preparing and participating in topic discussions, leading a journal club, key recommendations I made, my strengths from this rotation, and any areas of improvement or weaknesses they saw. Anything and everything
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