A letter in which a writer (usually a person in a supervisory role) evaluates the skills, work habits, and achievements of an individual applying for a job, admission to graduate school, or some other professional position.
When requesting a letter of recommendation (from a former boss or professor, for instance), you should (a) clearly identify the deadline for submitting the letter and provide adequate notice (at least two weeks), and (b) supply your reference with specific information about the position you're applying for.
Many prospective employers and graduate schools now require that recommendations be submitted online, often in a prescribed format.
- Letter Writing
- Sample Letter of Recommendation: Professor's Recommendation for a Student Applying to Graduate School
- "What goes into a letter of recommendation? Usually the employer will state the position that you held, length of employment, your responsibilities in that position, and the positive qualities and initiative that you displayed while working for that firm."
(Clifford W. Eischen and Lynn A. Eischen, Résumés, Cover Letters, Networking, and Interviewing. South-Western, 2010)
- "Don't assume that because a person is a professor he knows how to write a letter of recommendation. . . .
"An effective letter of reference should show what makes you unique, what will distinguish you from the many others who may have grades similar to yours, what will make you an asset for whatever program or job you are being recommended for. Vague, unsubstantiated statements in a recommendation saying that you are wonderful are likely to hinder, not help you."
(Ramesh Deonaraine, The Book of Wisdom for Students. Writers Club Press, 2002)
- When to Say No
"Intending to write a less-than-glowing letter and not informing the person who asked you of your intention is like an ambush. If you cannot write a good letter of recommendation, decline."
(Robert W. Bly, Webster's New World Letter Writing Handbook. Wiley, 2004)
- Recommendation Inflation
"When it comes to recommendations for jobs, academe seems to have taken up permanent residence along the shores of Lake Wobegon. All of the applicants are above average--way above. . . .
"'Writing a letter of recommendation for someone you want to promote is like putting makeup on,' says Lennard J. Davis, head of the English department at Illinois-Chicago. 'You have to accentuate what looks good and cover up the blemishes.' It's an art form both in the writing and the reading. 'You are entering the world of hermeneutics and interpretation.'
"Got a student who lacks focus and keeps overreaching? Call him 'ambitious.' Looking for a nice way to describe an antisocial colleague? 'Keeps her own counsel' ought to do the trick.
"Context, of course, is everything. A good letter says something about a candidate's research, teaching, personality, leadership potential, and impact on the field. If you really want to sell somebody, compare the person to other big names in the discipline. If not, keep mum. There's no need to slam someone's scholarship. Just focus the entire recommendation on their teaching. The review committee can do the math for themselves."
(Alison Schneider, "Why You Can't Trust Letters of Recommendation." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2000)
- Ambiguous Recommendations
"[E]mployers should be able to write recommendations without fear of lawsuits. They need a way to convey honest--though perhaps unfavorable--information about a candidate for a job without the candidate being able to perceive it as such. To this end, I have designed the The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations--L.I.A.R., for short. Two samples from the lexicon should illustrate the approach:
To describe a candidate who is not very industrious: 'In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.'Phrases like these allow an evaluator to offer a negative opinion of the candidate's personal qualities, work habits, or motivation, yet enable the candidate to believe that he or she has been praised highly."
To describe a candidate who is certain to foul up any project: 'I am sure that whatever task he undertakes--no matter how small--he will be fired with enthusiasm.'
(Robert J. Thornton, The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations: Positive-Sounding References for People Who Can't Manage Their Own Sock Drawers. Sourcebooks, 2003)