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Recommendation Letter Tips

If you need to be admitted to a school of higher learning or secure a good position in the work force, you will probably need one or more letters of recommendation. Both admissions boards and employers need to know as much as possible about an applicant to determine his or her ability to perform adequately. Letters of recommendation provide information from a credible source who has been personally involved with the candidate. This outside source provides a valuable record of the candidate's previous experience and can testify to his or her skills and abilities. An effective letter of recommendation:
  • verifies experience
  • confirms competence
  • builds credibility
  • bolsters confidence
The information contained in a letter of recommendation depends on the type of letter and its intended audience. Information is often different for a letter written for an academic admissions board than one written for a prospective employer.

Types of Recommendations

Academic Letters
Admission to any institute of higher learning usually requires one or more letters of recommendation. Be sure to follow these instructions carefully.
These letters provide the admissions committee with information not found in the application—information that shows the applicant matches the school's expectations and requirements. The letter also provides an opportunity for an applicant to be seen as an individual, and helps him or her to stand out from the hundreds or thousands of other applicants.
It is important that the person providing the recommendation has a good understanding of your academic history, interests, goals, and direction. Normally, this type of recommendation letter is addressed to a specific person and should be submitted along with the admission application or as outlined in the admissions procedure. In many cases, accredited universities require that letters of recommendation be sent directly to specific departments or to the admissions office. If this is the case, the applicant may be required to sign a waiver of confidentiality and relinquish his or her right to access the information contained in the letter or forms. Academic letters of recommendation may contain evidence or confirmation of the following:
  • Academic performance
  • Honors and awards
  • Initiative, dedication, integrity, reliability, etc.
  • Willingness to follow school policy
  • Ability to work with others
  • Ability to work independently
Employment Letters
A potential employer may or may not request a letter, but having one or more available upon request is part of careful preparation for the interview. Even if not requested, a well-written letter of recommendation may help you stand out in the evaluation process.
The employee usually requests the letter of recommendation from a direct supervisor or other manager with personal knowledge of the employee's performance on the job and positions held. This person might also add comments regarding individual qualities such as initiative and dedication. A potential employer may also request character references testifying to the candidate's work ethic, dependability, and motivation level.
The credibility of the letter writer is very important in a character reference. These letters may or may not be addressed to a specific person, and may either be mailed to the recipient by the writer or hand-delivered by the employee at the interview. Ask for this type of letter only if you are on good terms with a current employer and he or she is able to respond positively to news that you are leaving. If you have already secured a new position, it may not be necessary to ask your current employer for a letter of recommendation.
Letters of recommendation from employers may contain evidence or confirmation of some or all of the following:
  • Previous positions held in the company
  • Summary of job responsibilities
  • Strengths, skills, and talents
  • Initiative, dedication, integrity, reliability, etc.
  • Ability to work with a team
  • Ability to work independently
The Letter Writer
Choose who will represent you wisely. No one person can represent you accurately in all areas. Find someone who knows your strengths in the areas you need to satisfy the requirements of a particular employer or admissions board. Schedule a convenient time for you and your employer or advisor to meet. Review the requirements and expectations of the recommendation letter. This process helps the person who is writing the letter answer questions, clarify points that may need elaboration, and point out additional information that may be required. Make this process easy by providing all of the information needed so that you can obtain an accurate and positive recommendation.
When you request a recommendation, communicate your needs in a straightforward way. Explain what you are applying for and ask if the person can provide you with a good recommendation. If someone exhibits any uneasiness about providing you with a strong recommendation, be polite, thank him or her for their time and then look elsewhere. Choose someone who:
  • can provide a well-written letter
  • knows you well enough to be credible
  • thinks highly of you and your abilities
  • holds a respected position
Keep in mind that the recommender is doing you a favor and has a busy schedule with other commitments. Make sure you allow enough time so that he or she can provide you with a well-written and effective letter.
Once you have a few letter writers and a game plan for what you'd like the letters to say, there are two more things you can do to increase your chances of success:
  • Give your writers plenty of time so they aren't forced to slap together a quick letter or miss any application deadlines. A minimum of three or four weeks is customary and will allow you to check back a few days before the deadline to ensure that the letter has been sent or faxed.
  • Give your writers a well-organized, thorough packet of materials with all the elements clipped together or contained in a single large envelope. Ideally, these elements should include some or all of the following items, depending on the letter's purpose:
    • A current copy of your academic transcript showing the courses you've taken and the level at which you've performed. This does not have to be an official copy; a photocopy of your record is fine.
    • A copy of your academic résumé
    • A pre-addressed envelope for each letter -- regardless of whether the letter is being sent through campus mail or the postal mail -- with postage affixed if the letter is being sent via postal mail. If there are graduate school letters that should be returned to you in a sealed envelope, be sure to write your name and the school's name on the outside of each envelope. Many letter writers also appreciate self-adhesive envelopes that don't require licking or wetting to seal.
    • Any forms that are supposed to be submitted with the letter. If there is a form that goes with the letter, complete as much information as possible (everything except ratings, evaluative statements, signature, and date). For example, type or neatly write the recommender's name, title (e.g., Associate Professor), and full contact information (e.g., telephone number, fax number, postal address, email address). That way, your letter writer can focus strictly on the recommendation itself.
      Note: If you're asked to indicate whether or not you waive access to the letter of recommendation, be sure to answer affirmatively (that you do waive the right). Answering otherwise gives the appearance of not trusting your letter writer, and it dilutes the effectiveness of the letter.
    • A cover note briefly listing:
      • Your contact information in case the letter writer needs to reach you
      • A table or list of deadlines covering all the letters that you need
      • Your career aspirations and the type of position you're applying for
      • Information or points you would like your letter writer to emphasize
      • Summary of work/projects you did with your writer (including dates)
      • Any other information you deem relevant
By adhering to these general guidelines, you will increase the chances of getting good letters of recommendation and ultimately securing the position you seek.