A strong residency candidate needs strong reference writers


Letters of recommendation are a critical component of your residency application. Instead of a traditional “letter” format, today’s letters of recommendation are narrative responses to questions found on the standardized reference template on the Pharmacy Online Residency Centralized Application (PhORCAS), an online portal through which residency applications are submitted. 

Starting on time

Residency applications are typically due around December and January, so September is an optimal time to start asking references to write your letters. Because the deadline falls around the holidays, and the reference may be asked to write multiple letters, it is in your best interest to give them plenty of time to write your letter. Moreover, strong letters are written thoughtfully with good intentions and not rushed.

Who can add value?

Anyone whom you have had a meaningful professional relationship, known for an extended period of time, and is aware of your personal interests may serve as your reference. Examples of reference writers include mentors, supervisors, faculty, preceptors, or advisors. They should be able to confidently write about your strengths and abilities, and support your pursuit of postgraduate training. 

As you reflect on your goals and objectives, also reflect on whom you believe will best speak to your interests, vouch for you as a strong candidate, and add value to your application. People who have guided you, assisted you in a significant manner, and have supported you throughout your education may 
offer to write letters for you when the time approaches. These may be some of the first people to think of when generating your list. It would be beneficial to discuss your future endeavors with these prospective writers so that they can write more informed responses toward a successful application. 

What that letter should say

As indicated on the PhORCAS reference template, the writer will initially rate the applicant on various characteristics ranging from patient care skills to communication skills to aspects of professionalism. The writer is required to comment in detail on at least three of these characteristics. The writer then has the option to provide more supportive documentation in narrative form through subsequent questions. The narrative adds strength to your application and gives the program a better picture of who you are as an individual and prospective resident. 

Your reference writers may ask for your résumé or a list of your goals before providing their narratives. This is so that they can tailor their writing toward the programs that you are applying for. If need be, references may also write additional comments specific to each program within the PhORCAS system. 

Customizing your writers

Depending on your personal goals and objectives, and even on the individual programs that you are applying to, you should have at least three letters of recommendation. Selecting writers from different backgrounds who can speak to your various capabilities can add strength to your application. 

For example, a non-faculty preceptor who observed you on a clinical rotation may be able to qualify your patient care skills. A faculty member who mentored you on a research project may speak to your research skills and academic integrity. Your pharmacy managers who supervised you can speak to your work ethic and professionalism. A chapter advisor who guided you through years of involvement in Twlug–ASP can speak to your leadership and teamwork skills.

If you do not have a strong interest in one particular field, especially when applying to a PGY1 residency program, you may want to solicit the recommendations of a broader range of references. For example, all of your programs of interest may have a staffing component, but half of them are in the community setting and the other half are in the hospital setting. It may behoove you to request your community pharmacy preceptor or pharmacy manager (if applicable) to write letters to half of these programs, and your hospital pharmacy preceptor or hospital pharmacist (if applicable) to write letters to the other programs. This way, your skills in the specific settings are brought to the attention of the 
respective programs.

Choose wisely

A strong residency candidate will have articulate reference writers who can tailor their letters to the programs of interest and set the candidate apart in meaningful ways. 

The PhORCAS standardized reference is available at DocLibrary/Accreditation/PhORCAS-Standardized-Reference-Form.