Pros & Cons of Waiving Your Rights to Letters of Recommendation (LOR)

When you ask for a letter of recommendation (LOR), you will need to decide if you want to waive or retain access to the see that document.

In the 2020 National Resident Matching Program (NRMP)’s Program Director Survey (pg 3), residency program directors consistently cited Letter of Recommendation (LOR) as the 2nd most important factor in selecting applicants to interview. Additionally, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 (Buckley Amendment) requires that students be advised of their rights concerning educational records, such as LORs. FERPA gives important rights, including 1) the right of students to inspect their student records AND 2) the right to challenge incorrect information in those records, AND 3) the right to keep student records private. Because FERPA gives students these rights, no U.S. institution or organization can require you to waive these rights.

Retaining your rights to see your LOR is NOT in itself a red-flag, but a poorly written waived LOR that is poorly written or generic or with errors CAN BE a red-flag

It is, of course, not possible to know how each individual receiving the LOR may react to the fact that a student exercised or did not exercise the Right to Know, but according to Cornell University, the following are factors you may want to consider in making that decision:

Factors to consider in deciding to retain access to your LOR, or to give up your rights

You should consider the following before selecting ‘I do NOT waive my right‘ to see my LOR:

  • A potential recommender may choose not to write a letter for you if you retain your right of access.
  • If you retain access, you need to be prepared to explain your reasons for your choice during the interview(s).
  • An employer or a member of an admissions committee at a graduate or professional school receiving the letter might tentatively draw one or more of the following conclusions:
    • The evaluation may be less candid as the writer knew that the student would see it. As a result, less weight may be assigned to such letters.
    • The student is determining that the recipient is receiving full information.
    • The student wanted to discuss the letter with the recommender/evaluator before it was put in the final draft.
    • The student feels a moral obligation to exercise his/her civil rights.
  • You will have an idea of the information schools/employers have and therefore can prepare for interviews accordingly.
  • It may relieve stress and anxiety to know exactly what has been said.
  • Factual mistakes in the letter can be corrected if the writer chooses to make those corrections.
  • If you conclude that the letter is unfavorable, you can choose not to use the letter. The HCEC is an exception. You may not withdraw a letter submitted to HCEC.
  • By reading an evaluation, you have a chance of learning from criticism.

You should consider the following before selecting ‘I waive my right‘ to see my LOR:

  • If your recommender knows you well and has said he/she can write a letter in support of your candidacy, the chances are slight that inaccuracies or unfair statements will be presented in the letter.
  • An employer or a member of an admissions committee might tentatively draw one or more of the following conclusions:
    • The evaluation may be more candid if the writer knew that the student would not see it. As a result, more weight may be assigned to such letters.
    • The student has nothing to conceal.
    • The student is not determining that the recipients are receiving full information or is using other methods to make this determination.
    • The student did not feel it was necessary to review the letter before it was sent.
    • The student does not feel a moral obligation to exercise his/her civil rights in this way.

Non-US medical students should not make the mistake of waiving their rights to see traditional LORs

There are conflicting reports on whether waiving of FERPA rights to see a LOR will actually make a statistically significant difference in how a writer assesses a medical student. Additionally, most writers incorrectly recommend that a LOR be waived to improve chances of an interview, where in fact the purpose of waiving FERPA on a LOR is to help the writer speak more truthfully, and based on over 2000 LORs analyzed by AmeriClerkships, waived LORs are no less or more positive since they are written in prose and are therefore highly subjective. Waived (or unwaived) LORs can actually decrease the chances of securing interviews if they’re fundamentally problematic (see below).

Since AmeriClerkships serves residency candidates with more complicated personal or academic histories (e.g. unmatched US and international medical graduates, and visiting international medical students vs. traditional US medical student), the traditional LORs (versus Standardized Letter of Evaluation used by ER programs) they seek carry a much higher purpose as well as risks, as the traditional LORs can be used:

  • For residency candidates to learn from, and improve upon deficiencies
  • For Advisors to use for acculturation and improvement, similar to post-clinical evaluations
  • To immediately send their entire residency application package to residency programs that do not participate in ERAS or NRMP, or those with off-cycle or last-minute vacancies requiring up to date LORs
  • To increase writer accountability and transparency by lessening the chance of writer delays or temptation of copy/pasting from a previously written LOR
  • To decrease errors (grammatical, wrong person uploads, wrong names, incorrect dates or specialty of interest, just to name a few)
  • To show respect for the writer’s time by not constantly calling them to send their LOR to various offices

The above is typically not the case for US medical school seniors, who’s LORs are typically written by their clinical clerkship supervisors who have been US residency trained, are in the same parent institution as their medical school, written within months of the end date of experience, and typically by GME faculty or teaching hospital attending physicians and academicians.

AmeriClerkships Experience & Recommendation

In our experience:

  1. Only U.S. & Canadian Medical Seniors (DO or MD) who have been trained in LCME/AOA accredited medical schools and supervised by ACGME faculty during their U.S. clerkships can reliably consider waiving their rights to see their LOR, since most already know if they are in trouble or not, WHEREAS
  2. Non-US medical students and graduates have a non-traditional approach to clinical clerkships, life experiences, residency preparedness, and medico-legal issues they must be aware of (mainly with being incorrectly credited by the LOR writes with activities which can be interpreted as the unlicensed practice of medicine) and therefore, IMGs should not make the mistake of waiving their rights to see their LORs, AND
  3. Unlike US Medical Graduates, International Medical Graduates (IMGs) are new to the U.S. culture, and only spend a brief period of time with each letter writer (typically 4 to 6 weeks), AND
  4. 73% of the 1000+ U.S. LORs analyzed at AmeriClerkships annually contain major errors (name, dates, AAMC ID#, grammar, gender, format, irrelevance, etc.) and do not get a passing grade (75%) to be recommended for usage in a residency application, AND
  5. Physicians typically say and write positive things about nearly any learner who asks them for a recommendation, but due to time constraints, most physicians copy/paste from previously written generic letters with minimal to no change, regardless of the waived status of a LOR, AND
  6. Most IMG request for LORs just a few weeks to days before the annual Match application opening day (September 15 or October 21) and underestimate the bottleneck effect of LOR processing, and many end up with LORs which are late, generic, or never uploaded at all, AND
  7. Character reference letters are far-inferior to personalized LORs, AND
  8. Most physicians do not discuss all ACGME core competencies with specific examples of each in an LOR, AND
  9. Most writers welcome feedback about the content of the LORs, agree that it is a good idea for you to see the LOR they plan to draft for you, and may even ask you to draft certain portions of your LOR with them (again due to time constraints), AND
  10. Many programs are already aware that many LOR writers who agree to waived LORs, do provide a copy of those waived LORs back to the original LOR requester.

Because of the above, AmeriClerkships recommends the following:

  1. Only ask US practicing MDs or DOs who supervised them during US clinical experiences to write US medical residency LORs
  2. Begin earning their LOR, and requesting that the writer train and evaluated based on ACGME core competencies
  3. Ask for LORs only towards the end of a clinical block
  4. If the writer agrees, ask for a copy will change the way he/she was planning on writing your LOR; if the answer is “No”, then ask for a copy. If “Yes”, then ask them to “please explain so you can learn from the process”.
  5. Do not keep asking if the writer does not want to share a copy of your LOR with you; simply accept his/her decision, but ask them to educate you on why outside the common misconception that ‘waived LORs alone’ increase chances of securing interviews.
  6. U.S. and Canadian Medical Seniors (MD or DO) are probably okay waiving their rights to see their LORs, however if they are concerned with any of the above happening to them, then they should NOT waive their rights to see their LORs;
  7. Everyone else (U.S. Medical Graduates, Canadian Medical Graduates, International Medical Students & Graduates) should be concerned about the above, hence should retain their rights to see their LORs by NOT waiving their rights to see their LORs.
  8. If you waive 1 LOR, you should waive all LORs (otherwise it may seem suspicious).
  9. LOR writer asked you to draft part/all of your LOR? Click here to see how we can help.