This year, I wrote about 20 recommendation letters, and numerous students asked me to serve as a reference. This is part of the job. Because I work closely with students, they ask me to comment on their work within in their student organization, job, or other involvement on campus. Writing the recommendations or serving as a reference is always nerve wracking for me. I am a feeler. My goal is to write the best letter possible. I find it more challenging to write letters for students who are more involved and extremely talented. There is so much to say, and I have to squeeze it all into one page.
Serving as a reference or writing a recommendation letter has changed slightly from when I first entered the field. Originally, the letter had to be on letterhead, one page long, printed, signed, and mailed. Now, I often receive an electronic form with text boxes. Serving as a reference used to mean a phone call. Now, it’s often an email with a list of questions. And in those instances, the company only gives you a few days to respond.
Still with all the changes, I take writing recommendations and serving as reference very seriously. I feel humbled and honored when a student believes I am the best person to speak of their qualifications and leadership skills. There have been a few times where I had to tell a student I could not write the recommendation letter due to not having enough time or knowing that someone else could speak more highly of them. Having to tell a student I can’t write him/her a recommendation letter breaks my heart. However, I do not feel bad saying no to a student who asks me to write him/her a letter only a few days before it is due. I make it clear that I need at least two weeks to write a quality letter.
Below is my timeline for writing a recommendation letter:
– Write the letter two weeks before it is due
– Come back to the letter a few days latter, and make edits as needed
– Send the letter to the student for their review*
– Make final changes one week before it is before it is due
– Send in a few days before the deadline. (It reflects better on the applicant.)
*Now, I know what you are thinking. Why are the students reading the letter? Well, here are two reasons:
1.) The letter is for the student. He/she wants it to be perfect. He/she will catch any incorrect information, grammar, or spelling errors.
2.) The joy the student gets from reading the letter is heartwarming. Your words are what they need to hear. It boosts his/her confidence.
Every year, a selection committee reads a significant amount of applications to select the top 10 students who made a significant impact on campus outside the classroom. Part of the application involves two employees on campus speaking about the student’s work. This year, 10 students asked me to speak on their behalf. Although I knew not all 10 would get the award, I wanted to demonstrate the impact they had on the campus and on me. The committee told us that we did not have to write a full letter; however, if the student won, the committee would use our words to present the award. The challenge is to sum up some of the most talented and amazing students on campus, and express their talents and impact on campus in a way that catches the committee’s attention (and potentially, the audience’s).
For every letter I wrote, I asked the student to review the letter. Some of them caught a few mistakes and suggested some changes. Many said they did not see anything that needed to be changed. However, every one of them expressed their joy and gratitude for my words. They felt appreciated. Their responses made me smile. It’s another reason why I love my job. Yes, it took time to write the letters, but it was worth it. After the committee notified a few of them saying they did not win the award, the students emailed me thanking me again. They said that even though they did not win the award, reading my letter made them feel like a winner.
I know many people have special formulas for writing recommendation letters. Google has many templates you can use to write a recommendation letter. However, I find the best letters all have one thing in common: they come from a place of truth and good nature. My final advice to you all is when writing a recommendation letter, make sure it’s personable and it reflects the student. Every student is unique in his or her own way, and he/she deserves his/her own letter, not the same letter you’ve written for every student with a few words switched around. Take the time to demonstrate each student’s worth. In the end, it will be better for all parties involved.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave your tips for writing recommendation letters in the comments below.