Letters of Recommendation: This Will Definitely NOT Be on the Test

The “this will definitely NOT be on the test” series is devoted to those things that fall into the cracks between what college prepares you for and what your employers need you to be prepared for.

One small example is letter of recommendation requests.

You have heard on campus to be polite when asking for letters of recommendation, to include your resume and personal statement, and to allow plenty of time between the request and the deadline.  That’s good advice, but…

The employer wants a letter of recommendation that includes details of the recommender’s experience with you as an individual, with specific examples.

And therein lies the gap.

What is a recommender supposed to put in the letter?  Your own quote from your personal statement (which may or may not have to do with that person’s experience with you)? Items from your resume? Surely you’re including your resume in your application materials! Does the employer really want to see that information repeated in a letter of recommendation?

The solution (or at least the short version of it): supply the details and the specific examples to the recommender.

When requesting a letter of recommendation from a professor you must include:

  • the course
  • the semester in which you took the course
  • clear, concise descriptions of the assignments and/or projects you completed in class
  • an explanation of what that course and those projects have to do with the thing you are applying for

With that information, a professor can quickly add the details you provide into his/her template for letters of recommendation. Be sure that what you write is something you’d be happy with if it were cut-and-pasted into the letter of recommendation.

It’s bad to get showered with faint praise (“I am writing to confirm that student X was in my class. Let me describe the class…”); it’s much worse to shower yourself with faint praise by writing an inarticulate, superficial description of your work in the course and its connections to your professional goals.

Luckily, most students are able to provide excellent information once given the guidelines above. And that often triggers the professor’s memory, causing him or her to add even more details on how great you are once they start writing.

NOTE to students: For professors, a letter of recommendation is like an essay assignment. Think about your reaction to those: How long does it take? Do you procrastinate? What’s the range of quality you produce on written essays?  You can help your professors write a great letter for you by following the tips above!

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