How to Obtain Effective Letters of Recommendation


Endorsements play a key role in getting hired. Use these steps to ensure you’ll have them when you need them.

Are you applying for admission to a college or university? for a scholarship, fellowship, internship, grant? part-time, summer, or full-time job? foreign study? Then you are going to need supporting references covering your scholastic, personal, and employment history. This will definitely include some letters of recommendation—as many as three for each goal.

If you haven’t already given special thought to your own future endorsement needs, start now. Who will help you reach each milestone?

Don’t invite frustration because you failed to become known in a positive way to at least a few teachers, advisers, employers, or counselors. You can get forceful letters of recommendation by following this ten-point program:

1. Select persons who know enough about you to write something meaningful and whose opinions will be considered pertinent. Your first impulse may be to choose an authority figure who likes you. But ask yourself if that person can also testify to your experience, academic preparation, professional competence, character, breadth of interests, interpersonal relationships, and special achievements? You may have earned some of this commendation in a church group, a community program, volunteer work, school or club activities, as well as in the classroom or on the job.

“One of the advantages of being a bishop in a small ward is that I can give an in-depth review of each individual and feel comfortable about it,” says Bishop Robert Browning of the Santa Clara California First Ward. “It is not so easy to do a letter of recommendation for people where I work, because I haven’t known them that well.” (He is a detective/sergeant in the fraud detail.)

Do not underestimate the importance of building a good record in other avenues of activity besides work and school.

2. Find out which qualities and requisites are most valued by the officials who select successful candidates. You might talk to predecessors in your chosen endeavor, to placement office counselors, to employers who attend conferences and career clinics, to faculty advisers, and other knowledgeable people. Then cue your letter writers to focus on any of these points that apply to you. Good scholarship is always desirable, but not exclusively so. You may be competing with hundreds of other straight-A students. How can you stand out among them? An individual who has done something noteworthy on his or her own and shows aptitude for the desired job or program will undoubtedly have an edge over other candidates. Show that you have thought about what you can do for the organization or program, as well as what you can gain from it.

Take note of Sharon, who was competing for a guest editorship with a national magazine and made it a point to complete all the suggested competition projects, not just the required ones. She did well on all these extra efforts and was one of the 20 young women selected. Think of the recommendations she earned!

An extreme example of placing too much emphasis on A grades is illustrated by Jerry, who asked a P.E. instructor for a letter of recommendation because that teacher gave him his only A in four years. It was for badminton.

Diane emphasized straight-A records in literature and political science when the prospective employer was looking for practical experience, “drive,” and willingness to learn and advance in the health foods business.

Take pride in your good grades of course, but think of them as one investment in your future.

3. Give each writer the precise information that will enable him or her to do a good job for you. Explain why the letter is needed, what it means to you, exactly where and to whom the letter should go and when. If you know of a particular qualification that will be heavily weighed, say so. Explain why you want to work for this firm or why you feel that you are the right candidate for this honor/award/program. Which qualities or skills do you feel are your strengths? Indicate that you have studied as much as possible about the organization you want to join or the recognition you hope to receive so that your enthusiasm and interest are apparent. (Some years ago I helped to select a woman student as our school’s applicant for the statewide Edith Allen Scholarship. She was awarded the scholarship and reported that one of the first questions the interview committee asked was, “Who was Edith Allen?”)

4. Spend a few minutes with those you’ve selected as references, especially if they haven’t seen you for a while, to refresh their memories concerning your qualifications. If that is not possible, do the same thing by letter or over the telephone. Provide them with a summary of all your important data, including interests, hobbies, and accomplishments, to give the letter writer a head start and save everyone’s time. Include a short reminder of when, and in what way, you and this person were associated. For example, you might remind Mr. Johnson that in his class (date) you were the moderator of the group that did an A report called “Who Makes This City Run?” He asked you to write a condensation of it for the interdepartmental bulletin, and it was reprinted in the campus newspaper. Or, in case the store manager should scratch her head and only vaguely recall a shadowy figure who punched in and out of her department one summer, nudge her to remember you as the temporary employee who helped stage the back-to-school exhibit and sale a year ago. She invited you to come back after graduation, but by that time you were to serve an internship in another area. Get the idea?

5. Choose your recommenders, as far as you possibly can, so that their recommendations will complement and reinforce each other. Three letters that all say, in effect, “Susan is a great girl and we enjoyed having her around,” won’t mean much to an employer who wants to know if Susan can carry responsibility week after week, take suggestions well, work under pressure, learn new things, get along with colleagues of all ages, and be honest and loyal.

A dentist whose staff has included several assistants and technicians through the years says he keeps one question foremost in evaluating an employee: Would I be anxious to hire him or her again if the opportunity came up again? This test suggests a counterquestion for each job holder: What will build that kind of desire in my employer?

This question can be applied to other responsibilities of life too—in the classroom, on the committee, in volunteer activities, church work. Would they want me back again? is a worthy question to ponder in many circumstances. It’s a reminder to cultivate well the habits and attitudes that will make employers and colleagues glad you’re on the same team.

6. Avoid conveying the impression that you are applying for a certain job, program, or fellowship simply as a hedge. No one wants a halfhearted appointee who clearly feels that he is in a second- or third-choice deal. Apply for opportunities that truly interest you, and tell your recommenders as many things as you can that will be considered plus values. My heart sank a few times when, during an interview for admitting a student into teacher training, he or she would make a remark like this: “What I really want to go into is marine biology [or fashion design, or professional baseball], but if that doesn’t work out, I’d like a teaching credential to fall back on.”

But I must also tell you about one rare graduate-to-be who went job hunting, portfolio in hand, hoping to get on with a radio station. He saw KLM on a plate glass front in San Francisco, went in, asked for and received an interview. Fortunately, his personality and his qualifications were strong enough to get him hired—not by station KLM, as he’d figured, but by KLM Dutch Airlines, beginning a long and rewarding career in sales promotion and public relations.

7. Allow enough leeway on the calendar to permit references to write recommending letters well before deadlines. You wouldn’t apply for admission to law school, medical school, or any special program at the last minute, so treat recommending letters with the same consideration. (Even today I received a request for a letter that was due yesterday.) Of course, if you hear of a plum job this week, and hiring will be done in a day or two, ask the employer if you can supply recommendations by telephone and get busy right now. Always, if you plan to appear in person to ask for a recommendation, phone or write ahead for a convenient appointment.

8. Sooner or later you’ll need to present yourself in resume form. It is a professional courtesy to ask a chosen individual if you may list his or her name as a reference on this document, because that person may be telephoned, visited, or asked to write a letter on your behalf.

Some organizations collect personnel information through questionnaires. It might be a good idea to ask your recommenders, in such a case, if there is anything you can help them answer or fill in.

9. The first break you can give yourself is accuracy, including correct use of titles. Spell all names correctly (Peterson-Petersen? Elisabeth-Elizabeth-Lizabeth?)—places, persons, addresses. If you write your request, edit the letter carefully, or have someone else check it if you are not sure of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Don’t be afraid to go to the reference library or telephone knowledgeable sources for accurate details. (My name has been spelled Deloris Sturgeon, Dorothy Sturges, or Doris Spergen, etc., by persons who could have learned the correct spelling from our department secretary.)

10. As soon as you are notified of outcomes, let the recommenders know too. They will be happy and proud that you got the job, the scholarship, the acceptance to a university, or whatever you hoped to achieve. Even if you are unsuccessful this time, remember to thank everyone who helped you, and keep trying.

How you spend your time while you wait for the breaks is as important as your other preparation. Don’t waste it just waiting. Do something that can add new luster to the next round of recommending letters. I think of Sally, who took two part-time jobs, one to pay bills with and the other to give relevant experience in computer analysis, while waiting for a job with an important research institute. And I think of Stan, who enrolled in night courses in accounting to qualify for work that put him through law school. And Jim, who taught retarded children how to swim as partial preparation for a career in recreation or counseling. And Arlene, a creative Sunday School leader who let nothing—not even her wedding—interfere with that responsibility.

If you have failings such as poor spelling, fear of public speaking, or inability to type, show that you are striving to overcome the deficiency and, meanwhile, look for opportunities that capitalize on your strong points.

Now you are in a position to inspire recommending letters that will help to further your well-planned goals—not wishy-washy comments that fail to impress anyone.

You can “look good” on paper, as well as in person!

The next best thing to your own informed, articulate personal presentation is an enthusiastic recommendation from a caring, authoritative person who convincingly seconds your nomination.

[illustration] Illustrated by Brent Christison