Descriptors in Letters of Recommendation for Otolaryngology Residency Across Gender, Race, and Time

Benjamin Aunins, Arvind Badhey, Zachary Conroy, Javier J.M. Howard, Charles Myer, Mekibib Altaye, Alice L. Tang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


OBJECTIVE: To determine whether differences exist in the descriptors used in letters of recommendations for Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery (OHNS) residency candidates, comparing race and gender as depicted in visual letters of recommendation (VLORs) from the 2014 and 2019 application cycles. Design: Four hundred thirty-three LORS (284 narrative LORs and 149 standardized LORs) and 63 medical student performance evaluations for 104 candidates who interviewed at the University of Cincinnati OHNS residency program in 2014 and 2019 were analyzed. Descriptors from LORs and medical student performance evaluations were collected by two reviewers and QSR NVivo 12 was used to generate a word cloud that grouped words by synonym and weighted them by frequency. Reviewers coded these synonyms into one of eight descriptor categories. Race and gender were self-reported from residency applications. The average of each category frequency for each race and gender were compared using student t-tests. Setting: University of Cincinnati OHNS Residency Program. Participants: 104 OHNS applicants that interviewed at the University of Cincinnati in 2014 and 2019. RESULTS: Of the 104 candidates reviewed, 39 were female (37.5%). 66/104 (63%) of applicants identified as white, 31/104 (30%) as non-white, and 7/104 (7%) preferred not to say. No significant differences were found between male vs female descriptors. However, white applicants had more “leadership” descriptors (1.3% vs 0.5%, p = 0.01) and fewer “intelligence” words (6.6% vs 4.8%, p = 0.02) than non-white applicants. Applicants in 2019 were described with more team player (14.2% vs 9.6%, p < 0.0001), leadership (1.6% vs 0.7%, p = 0.047), and reserved (1.7% vs 0.7%, p = 0.02) words, but fewer grindstone (25.2% vs 32.1%, p < 0.0001) and ability/agentic (27.9% vs 32.6%, p < 0.0001) words than applicants in 2014. CONCLUSIONS: In VLORs for OHNS residency, male and female applicants are described similarly, but white applicants are described as leaders more frequently and as intelligent less frequently than non-white counterparts. Regardless, it is encouraging to see applicants described with a more humanistic vocabulary in 2019.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)935-942
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Surgical Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Letters of recommendations
  • leadership
  • otolaryngology
  • underrepresented minorities
  • visual letters of recommendations


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