As an applicant, getting my letters of recommendation in order seemed more like a chore than a vital part of my acceptance into PA school. It was just one more thing I needed to check off my very long checklist. But as an interviewer, I saw first hand how much one letter can make or break an applicant's fate.
Yes, my program has at least one current or prior student sit in on every interview. As I was reading through applications, I was actually shocked at how many subpar letters I came across. I feel like everyone just assumes that when you ask someone to write you a letter and they agree to it, they will automatically write only wonderful things about you. Clearly, not true. Don’t expect someone to write you a 100% amazing letter if you weren't giving them 100% every day you worked with them. Seems pretty logical to me. Some letters briefly mentioned a specific flaw, while others went into long explanations on why the applicant deserved a 2/5 on responsibility for being constantly late. Yikes! These little things matter. Now as an interviewer, I can't help but question you. Are you going to show up to class on time? Are you going to show up to your clinical sites? Can you handle the responsibility of making medical decisions regarding real life patients? Are you really ready for this? Are you mature enough to handle a career path like this? Will you take your job seriously? Will you represent the PA profession the way I want it to be represented? It's not a good line of questioning for the applicant to say the least. And just like that, your 4.0 GPA and your 2,000+ hours of patient care experience don't even matter to me.
So who should you chose to write your letters of recommendation? First and foremost, choose someone who is willing to sit down and take the time out of their busy schedule to write you the best possible letter. I think it goes without saying that the busiest person on the planet, although they may think very highly of you and although they may be a well-respected player in the game, may not produce the most amazing letter for you solely based on time. You want every single positive quality to be reflected in your letters, not just the first three things that pop into the writer's head. When people agree to write you a letter, but say something along the lines of "Sure, but can you write me a rough draft first? " or "Sure, but can you provide me with an outline of all your strengths?" it screams LAZY to me. I don't want lazy. Lazy doesn't get you into PA school, and it certainly won't get you through it. It happens all the time, but my advice is to avoid these people's letters and find someone who is willing to write one on their own. I personally would NEVER recommend someone who I didn't feel was above and beyond, so don't choose someone you don't know inside and out. If you don't know them really well, they probably don't know you well either. Choose someone who knows your character best and will vouch for it without any hesitations. This is exactly why every single encounter you have with someone both in the medical field and outside the medical field really does matter. If you're having a good day, make it a great day, and if your having a bad day find a way to make it a good one. Your constant effort, drive, and positive attitude will pay off in these letters, I promise.
Choice paralysis is a common problem applicants face when they feel they've made a positive impact on a lot of different people they've encountered. I believe that the best applicants have letters reflecting all aspects of their life and personality. As a reader, I want to see how you've blossomed in many different channels of your life up to this point. I don't want three letters stating the same exact thing or pointing out the exact same traits. Common traits highlighted between all of your letters is a bonus because it provides confirmation to the reader. But ideally, I want one letter to focus on your discipline, while another focuses on your fun-loving and caring side, which then compliments your third letter that focuses on how well you work on a team. Your letters should portray ALL sides of you. Since you're not the ones writing the letters or providing their content the only thing you can do is make smart choices on whose doing the writing. They're looking for the best, brightest, capable, financially-responsible, compassionate, forward-thinking, well-prepared, resilient, like-minded candidates they can find. So choose someone who can vouch for multiple aspects of your character.
In today's society, we tend to value the opinions of those at the same level as us, rather than the expert opinion. There seems to be a different level of trust between peers than figures of authority. I would love to hear how a current PA thinks you will be as a future PA, for example. Who better to say how you'd be as a PA out in the real world than a real-life PA? Never get a letter of recommendation from a family member or a friend! Even if that person allowed you to shadow them or gave you a volunteer opportunity. Although I would love to read that letter about how much your grandma loves you, it's just not appropriate for this. When you get credentialed by a hospital to work as a physician assistant, a letter of recommendation will be required by a peer from your program to vouch for your character. In the meantime, I don't really care about how much your best friend thinks you’re an awesome person.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think letters of recommendation should really be an applicant's tipping point but, in a pile of thousands of applications, you need to separate the herd somehow. And if you're stuck comparing two applicants to each other and the only difference is one applicant's glowing letters of rec, chances are they will matter a lot more than you may think. Whether we like it or not, other peoples' opinions do matter. Those letters are the thing on your application that you have the least control over realistically, but it's you who decides who writes them, and it's you who had to spend the time proving yourself to those individuals in the first place.
A good letter of recommendation can make your day. A great letter of recommendation can change your life. Remember that.