Letter of Recommendation Fails: How to Avoid the Pitfalls & Recover from the Most Common Problem


Even with a solid plan for obtaining high-quality letters of recommendation (LOR) (which you probably made after reading last week’s post), certain aspects of the process are beyond your control. If not handled well, difficulties encountered with LORs can result in missed deadlines, incomplete applications, or poor quality evaluations.


It can be tough, particularly for a first-time applicant, to tactfully handle snags in the LOR process. However, there are strategies you can employ to avoid tricky LOR situations, and also proper ways of gracefully handling difficult circumstances if you find yourself stuck.


This post will break down how to avoid the most common LOR deadline issues and how to (smoothly) navigate through potential difficulties with your letter writers.



Be prepared for someone to bail

Most PA programs require three letters of recommendation. CASPA requires evaluations (LOR + ratings portion) from three references for your application to be considered complete, but allows up to five. When programs specify whom the letter writers should be, the most common request is that at least one reference speak to your clinical skills and abilities. This allows for a fair amount of flexibility in whom you choose to vouch for you.


You should always ask for one more reference than the minimum required by your programs (in most cases, this would mean four total references).


Anticipate that someone might bail on you, and create a safety net so your application is not sabotaged as a result. Planning in this way can save you a world of heartache if one of your top three choices does not meet the deadline.


So, whom should you ask to be your “extra” reference? The best additional reference is someone who can speak to your clinical skills. Yes, if another letter writer drops outs, you may end up with two letters detailing your clinical skills, but this is one of the most important aspects of your readiness for PA school and is the most common specific reference required by programs.


In descending order of the best additional reference to have, I would rank highest someone who could speak to your clinical knowledge, followed by your academic ability, then your work ethic, and finally your character. This is not to say non-clinical letters are not important, but a strategic contingency plan should focus on having the strongest collection of letters should one (clinical knowledge, academic ability, or work ethic as covered here) be missing.



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When the deadline is nearing

It can be hard to know how to properly address someone who has agreed to provide a recommendation but does not seem likely to meet the deadline. They already agreed to do you a huge favor, and you might be concerned that following up with them will seem like pestering, or worse, result in a lower quality evaluation. But don’t worry, this is the most common obstacle encountered after locking down your LOR writers, and there is a tactful way handle it.


First, we will assume that you gave them plenty of notice and sent them an email follow up with details including everything on the email checklist available in your free LOR guide.


In CASPA, you are able to set your evaluation deadline, so the date your references see as their deadline for completing your evaluation is entirely up to you. You should set this date at least several weeks in advance of when you expect finalize your application.


If your reference has not yet completed your evaluation a week before your imposed deadline, it is reasonable to do a quick email check-in.

Hi, I just wanted to check in and make sure you can still provide an evaluation for me to PA school. It is not due until next week, but I want to be sure everything is in by that date so my application will meet the deadline for my top choice schools. I really appreciate your willingness to provide an evaluation for me as I think you are best suited to speak to [whatever ability or experience you mentioned in your initial request]. If it is no longer possible for you to complete the evaluation for me, please let me know. Thanks again.


That should work, even for extraordinary procrastinators. But, if not...


When the deadline has passed

This should not be a big deal because a) you made up a faux deadline that was weeks ahead of when you actually needed the evaluation and b) you have an “spare” reference and already meet the application minimum. Still, it would be nice to have one of your top choices for LOR writers provide you with the endorsement they said they’d give.


It is fine to reach out one more time.

I am sure you are incredibly busy, and I know asking for an evaluation is only adding to your to-do list. I really appreciate your willingness to provide me with a recommendation. The original deadline has passed, but it is possible to get a short extension if you think this is something that you could still do for me. Would you be willing to complete this in the next X days? If not, please let me know.


Do everything you can to avoid sounding desperate or passive aggressive, even if you feel that way. If your potential reference continues to be unresponsive, this is the end of the line. Pushing further is not going to result in a quality evaluation.


If you neglected to lock down your spare reference from the start and remain one reference short, use your remaining weeks (which you should have because you set your “deadline” long before you needed the evaluations completed) to find another.



Guide, but don't dictate, LOR content

You should most definitely be specific with a potential reference about why you are asking them, in particular, to vouch for you - “I think you are best suited to speak to my clinical skills and rapport with patients and coworkers.” Suggesting a topic is appropriate.


You can even request that your letter writer include something specific about your experience with them, like a project, that you think might help to highlight your qualifications.


However, you need to recognize where to draw the line. You should not tell your letter writers the specifics of what to include in their recommendations, even if you have convinced yourself that it will matter to PA programs.


You should definitely not ask them to include aspects about your experience that they have no first hand knowledge of - your work supervisor should not be mentioning your making the Dean’s list. You should not ask your reference to include the name of the famous physician she works with because you think an admissions committee might be impressed. In short, let your reference write the letter that they think you deserve.


(If your reference is inexperienced in writing letters of recommendation and asks for your input, you can share the “Anatomy of a LOR” with them, included in the free LOR guide download.)


It is easy to start obsessing over the content of what someone may be writing about you and start to think that if one key element was added to a letter, you would definitely get an interview. However, a single LOR will not make or break your application, your personal essay and application should be carrying the load.


You should also not ask to read the letters of your references before or after they are submitted. This is unprofessional, even if a writer offers. Waive your rights to see your LORs on the CASPA application. You will not be able see the letters through CASPA even if you do not waive your rights. You can only see a letter by later obtaining it either from the letter writer or from the PA program you eventually attend.


Your letter writers will be able to see if you waive your rights or not, and by not waiving your rights, programs may view your LORs as a less accurate representations of your qualifications.


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Though they are written by others, you have the ability to prevent potential LORs disasters with strategic planning.


Controlling the timeline is key, and making contingency plans before you need them can keep you calm during a hectic application cycle.