One of my happier tasks is to solicit letters of support for faculty members nominated for awards in the Department of Medicine. Usually, everyone I contacted was pleased to write about their colleague or mentor. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm did not always translate into a compelling recommendation.
The AAMC has an instructive example on their website of how to improve nominating letters. They focus in particular on the often unconscious use of gendered language. Female candidates are described as nurturing or hard-working while male candidates produce results. In addition to watching for biased wording, I suggest other ways to strengthen letters:
- Describe specific outcomes: You can assume that all the nominees are devoted to mentoring or research or whatever the prize recognizes. But not all nominees volunteered to judge a junior high science fair or stayed late on a Friday night editing a grant before the deadline. Give concrete examples.
- Organize the paragraphs: Chronological order is always a logical way to structure a letter. Or you could devote a section to teaching, a section to research, and another to service. Just make sure you group similar comments into a coherent paragraph.
- Go onto the second page: Fair or not, awards committee members often judge the quality of the recommendation by its length. Short letters look like you don’t really have much to say or you’re writing out of obligation. If you need to pad a letter, you can talk about how the nominee compares to other mentors/students you’ve had in the past.
I used to think that awards went to the people who deserve them. Now I know that awards go to those who put together the best nomination packet.
Tags: awards; letters