Letters of Recommendation: Perspectives, Recommendations, and Ethics

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Recommendation letters are ubiquitous, but have problems of nonexistent guidelines and standards, redundancy, and inflation. A review of 150 letters revealed they typically state the writer's association with the applicant; the applicant's skills and ethics, supervision behavior, interpersonal skills, and worthy accomplishments; and closing positive remarks. Ethical issues in letters are often vague. Applicants should provide associations with the writer, target sites/individuals, vita or transcript, and memory cues, and should ask if the recommendation will be strong. Writers should refuse to write or warn applicants of poor or neutral letters, and give specific examples. A drastic suggestion is a moratorium on letters, which would have drawbacks. At least we can educate applicants about letters, teach them to discuss their strengths and weaknesses beforehand, and establish guidelines for letters.