One of your students calls to ask if you would write a recommendation to support her application for a position she is excited about. "Of course," you assure her. After all, she was an excellent student and you would like to help her secure the new position.
Later, when you sit down to work on the recommendation, writing may not seem such an easy task. What should you include? How could you get the information needed? How could the information be presented most effectively?
Consider how a prospective employer would react to the following recommendation by a former teacher of Ms. Brown:
I had Joan Brown in my senior clinical practicum two years ago. She was a very reliable and conscientious student. She got along very well with her patients, and had no serious problems in completing her course assignments. She was punctual and pleasant to work with. I feel she has many assets that would work very well in your agency.
The overall impression created with this recommendation is positive. But does it present Ms. Brown as the outstanding individual you know her to be? Does it provide the type of details that would convince an employer to hire Ms. Brown in preference to another excellent candidate?
Preparing to Write
Next time you sit down to write a recommendation for your student, avoid staring anxiously at the blank page by ensuring that you have already obtained the needed information from the candidate. Consider the following suggestions for pre-writing activities that could have made the writing of the recommendation for Ms. Brown easier and more effective:
* Ask candidates what they perceive as their strengths, so that you can emphasize these strengths in your recommendation. In turn, this will help prepare candidates to present these strengths confidently during an interview. You may also want to ask candidates if they perceive any weaknesses. For example, if an individual identifies his or her "quiet nature" as a weakness, you may be able to convey it as an asset for a position that requires an introspective approach to handling complex problems.
* Obtain information about extracurricular activities, work experience, community service, and special projects that the candidate has done, of which you may not be aware. This information will provide you with details to illustrate the candidate's attributes, such as leadership or organizational ability. Asking candidates about their short- and long-term goals will help you to write recommendations that convey their goal orientation, and help them prepare for similar questions about their goals asked by a prospective employer.
* Find out what skills are important in the position for which the candidate is applying. Then you can focus on those special strengths hi your recommendation. For example, if the position sought is that of a nurse recruiter, you may want to emphasize strengths in communication, problem-solving, initiative, and collaboration, as well as interpersonal skills that would enhance the candidate's effectiveness as a recruiter.
Writing the Recommendation
Suppose that a former student, Charles Wood, asks you to write a recommendation to support his application for a staff development position. By the time you sit down to write the letter of recommendation, you will have already gathered important information from Charles. If you have not already done so, jot ideas from this information, noting details to support strengths that you mention. How do you know Charles is responsible? In what way does he demonstrate initiative? How does his performance illustrate strong communication skills or sensitivity?
Try to recall some specific examples of what impressed you about Charles. Did he reach out to a patient in a special way? Did he organize some activity that made an important difference for your class? Is there some aspect of his personality that consistently surprised or impressed you? A recounting of an incident that conveys the character or judgments of the individual is often more helpful than a mere statement that "Charles is mature." For example, a reference to Charles" ability to excel in school while supporting three children with a full-time job paints a picture of a very responsible individual who effectively balances important commitments. Such information can help allay a prospective employer's concern that a candidate will not be able to handle heavy responsibilities because of family pressures.
Think about how your student stands out in your mind and begin writing about the student to create a verbal portrait, supporting your ideas with details. Perhaps the letter might begin with:
I watched Charles Wood interact with a difficult patient whom the staff had been avoiding. Charles said quietly, "I have a few minutes and I'd just like to talk with you." Mr. Wood's manner in this situation illustrated his characteristic sensitivity and strong communication skills.
Joan Brown's questions in the classroom set her apart from other nursing students. She frequently challenges nursing traditions by asking about alternative methods of health care like acupuncture and relaxation techniques in an attempt to fully explore available health care resources. Both her intellectual curiosity and sincere concern for her patients cause her to consider a wide range of problem-solving possibilities.
While Charles Wood was in my nursing practicum, he took the initiative to contact the Lions Club to get glasses for a patient who couldn't read prescription instructions. This initiative impressed me, and in subsequent months his work in the hospital never disappointed my expectation that he would be a leader.
Often letters begin directly: "Joan Brown is a remarkably compassionate nurse." After beginning in this manner, answer the following questions. Now that I've thought about Joan Brown, how do I know that she is compassionate? What is special about her? Which characteristics match the job she seeks?
As you begin writing, don't worry about sentence structure or spelling. You can check that later. Try to draft a letter that provides a comprehensive summary of your views of the candidate, using facts that support your conclusions about the candidate's special qualifications for the position (Hayden, 1983; MIT Educational Council, 1982; Perlstein, 1988).
After the draft is completed, let it sit for a short while and then read it with these questions in mind:
* What will someone remember from the letter?
* What outstanding qualities does this candidate have?
* Where do I need to add more information?
* How can I help ensure credibility by adding details?
* Does a real person emerge?
* Have I described qualities desired in the job that the candidate seeks?
Revise the letter so that it says exactly what you want to say. After you have completed the letter, check it for basic organization, grammar, and spelling. Then, you're ready to send it off
Remember that the person reading the recommendation you write will no doubt be reading many others written for competing candidates. Your recommendation, if written carefully, can help your candidate rise to the top of the pile. By following the process described here, you can create verbal portraits that will bring your candidate to life, and will help a prospective employer remember your student: Oh, yes, she's the one with . . ."
- Hayden, T.C. (1983). Writing effective college recommendations (Report. No. 6257). Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides.
- MIT Educational Council. (1982). Guidance counselor workshop materials. Unpublished manuscript.
- Perlstein, R. (1988). Writing college recommendations and preparing students for the essay: Activities that really work. Unpublished manuscript.