MPA | Pharmacy News

By Laura Hencken, Pharm.D., BCCCP, clinical pharmacist, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit

Writing letters of recommendation for students and residents can be a daunting task for both new and seasoned practitioners. This skill is not taught in school, and there are a number of unwritten rules that can impact a person’s ability to get an interview and possibly even influence their career.

Before writing a letter of recommendation, it is critical to be honest about your ability to provide a strong letter of recommendation for an applicant. For example, if you did not work with the applicant for very long, or if it was not a good experience, it is important to be honest with the applicant and tell them this. While it will be difficult to tell them “no”, it will be better for the applicant and the application recipients in the long-run.

A well-written letter of recommendation should be packaged in a particular format for the recipient to ensure that key elements are included. Letters are typically at least three paragraphs. Some consider the length of the letter to be an indication of the letter’s strength. Letters less than one page can be considered a red flag. The first, or introductory, paragraph should describe who you are, who the applicant is, how and for how long you have known the applicant. This will help the reader gauge why you are qualified to write the letter of recommendation.

The middle paragraph or paragraphs should include specific examples of the applicant’s performance and unique qualities or strengths of the applicant. In this portion, show don’t tell. In these paragraphs it is important to avoid exaggerating or providing overly vague and generic descriptions of duties that any applicant would perform. Middle paragraphs are also opportunities to voice concerns. For very strong candidates, weaknesses can be framed positively by stating what they improved on rather than stating things that were not done well. Lastly, the middle paragraphs can include program specifics that identify why a particular program or job is a good fit for the applicant, how it will allow them to meet their short and long-term goals as well as what the applicant will bring to the program.

Letters of recommendation should then end with a concluding paragraph that summarizes the key strengths of a candidate and the strength of the recommendation. Statistics may be included when applicable by saying that an applicant is among the top five percent of students.

Effective letters of recommendation include how and in what context an applicant is known, specific examples of how an applicant performed, activities, projects or accomplishments that make an applicant stand out compared to their peers and an estimate of how an applicant ranks compared to others. Meanwhile, ineffective letters are vague and generic, and describe typical rotation activities that all applicants would perform. Additional letter of recommendation details that could be detrimental to an application include not using professional letterhead, not using a real, hand-written signature and using “generic” or “form” letters.

Today, the process for residency letters of recommendation has changed through the use of the Pharmacy Online Residency Centralized Application Service (PhORCAS) standardized reference form, but the key principles for a good reference still remain. Writing generic examples or statements and typical rotation activities in the standardized form will result in a weak recommendation for an applicant. Meanwhile, use of specific examples from a rotation that is unique to an applicant’s strengths and abilities within the sections of the standardized form will result in a strong reference for the applicant. The PhORCAS applications may include a program specific section, in which case it is critical to highlight specific program qualities that make it a good fit for the applicant and how the program aligns with the applicant’s career goals.

Whether you are writing a letter from scratch, or completing the standardized PhORCAS reference form, knowing some of these key characteristics of strong reference letters provides an outline to ensure your letter provides the necessary information about an individual.  Using this outline will help ensure that an applicant gets the strong reference that you intend for them.


1. Teaching Tomorrow’s Pharmacists. Midwestern University website. Accessed April 2018.

2. Tips for Strong Letters of Recommendation. University of Central Florida College of Medicine website. Accessed April 2018. 

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