How to Write an Effective Letter of Recommendation

When requesting a letter of recommendation, don’t be surprised if your instructor or supervisor hands the forms back to you and says, "Sure, why don’t you go ahead and write the first draft yourself, and I’ll revise it and sign at the bottom."

Chances are, that person will already be handling a large number of such requests, and in addition busy schedules sometimes call for letter-writing delegation. This is particularly true within professional settings, where employees are expected to carry out self-evaluations.

You might at first find the assignment rather awkward, but this is a great opportunity to make sure the letter matches your goals and effectively highlights your most relevant achievements. When preparing to write a draft for your own letter of recommendation, keep a few things in mind:

Balance praise with candidness. Many people feel uncomfortable praising themselves. If you are the shy type, cast aside your timidity and try to be objective about your accomplishments. Letters of recommendation are, by definition, laudatory: so grab a sheet of paper and make a list of your good qualities. On the other hand, don’t completely discard modesty and err on the side of pure, distilled self-praise: your supervisor might not agree that you are indeed "superhumanly brilliant", and anyway admissions readers are much keener on candid, well-balanced letters than ones rife with superlatives.

Pick wisely and discard the fluff. Writing your own letter of recommendation is not unlike putting together your resume: you must choose your accomplishments carefully. A letter that highlights two or three specific qualities, accomplishments, and achievements is far stronger than one that covers all your positive traits. If you are having trouble paring down the content, ask a friend or colleague to look over the text and pick out the most impressive points.

Maintain credibility. Concentrate on making the letter believable. This doesn’t mean just sticking with the facts; it means finding a voice that accurately portrays you from the recommendation writer’s perspective. Remember that the letter must be stylistically different from your other submitted written work. Vary your vocabulary, adapt expressions, and generally avoid phrasing things exactly as you did, say, in your personal statement or cover letter.

Avoid redundancy. Don’t repeat accomplishments that have been described in detail elsewhere in your application. The letter should support your main accomplishments rather than merely rehash your resume. Write about these accomplishments in a new light, expanding on areas where you did not have the opportunity to elaborate on elsewhere in the application or cover letter.

Writing a Letter. Once you have enough information to actually write the letter, set aside anywhere from an hour or two to write it. Remember that, if the applicant needs five versions of the letter (say, for five different graduate programs), you don’t necessarily need to write five separate letters. Application forms usually request the same type of information, and you simply need to create variations based on a template.

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