Letters of Recommendation: Their Motive and Content

By Petress, Kenneth C. | College Student Journal, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Letters of Recommendation: Their Motive and Content


Petress, Kenneth C., College Student Journal


Letters of recommendation play a vital role in students' ability to secure desired jobs and entrance to graduate schools. Students, however, are frequently uninformed about their responsibilities and needs in the recommendation letter process. This article lays the groundwork for the process and the content of quality recommendation letter.

One very important college faculty tasks is to write letters of recommendation for our students. Those of us who are asked to write on students' behalf usually do so gladly; however, too frequently, students leave us in the dark as to the desired focus of such letters and fail to supply us with other pertinent information. This article is meant to help students seek good letter writers and to know how to better inform and guide writers to provide letter recipients information most likely to achieve student goals.

First, students need to choose wisely those individuals from whom help is sought. Not all people are good writers. Students should ask around campus about who has knowledge of good writers. The same writing components of style, organization, and content that students have been taught are expected by letter recipients. Poorly written or too terse and uniform recommendation letters may spoil your application success. Do not be reluctant to ask a prospective letter writer to show you examples of their writing. Most well organized people save recent recommendation letters and may be willing to show you what their recent letter writing is like. Examine such examples as if you were the receiver of such messages. If you would be impressed with such a letter, chances are you have a good letter writing candidate.

Most applicants are asked to garner multiple recommendation letters. Get assurances of all your letter writers before asking them for detailed commitments. Request one more letter than is minimally demanded of you just in case one person forgets, gets delayed, or falls ill. Once you have all your writers promising to write for you, draw up a master outline showing the traits, skills, and experiences you want recommendation letter recipients to know about. From that master list, draw up separate lists for each of your letter writers on which you rank order for these writers what you need them to focus on. Remember, it is your needs that writers should focus on, not the writer's priorities! Let each letter writer know who else is writing on your behalf. Share with letter writers which of your skills, traits, and experiences are most important to be shared with receivers of recommendation letters. This will aid letter writers in focus, intensity, and priority, giving letters your desired emphasis.

The reason for separate lists is that you neither want clone letters nor do you want totally divergent letters written about you. Clone letters are typically rejected out of hand as not being honest, lacking personalness, and not reflecting a picture of who you are. Multiple letters including too little overlap of your characteristics, skills, and experiences suggest to readers that either you are not really known well by anyone or that none of your good traits impressed more than one person. …

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