An organization's hiring officials often use letters of recommendation to get information about the candidate that they could not get in other ways. The confidential letter of recommendation is assumed to provide a candid view of the applicant's abilities. The letter should give a picture of the applicant's personal characteristics, experience, strengths, capabilities and professional promise from someone who has worked with or supervised the candidate. The committee uses these letters to help them make a final decision.
You might decline to write a letter of recommendation for any number of reasons. You might not know the applicant well enough. You may not have time to write it before it is needed. You may not feel you could say good things about the applicant. If any of that is true, you should be honest with the applicant about your reasons. If it is a lack of knowledge, perhaps you could have a conversation and get the information you need. It may be that the time frame is negotiable. If you feel you can't write a good letter, the applicant needs to hear clearly why. This can be an opportunity for the applicant to grow. It is difficult to say no, but if done tactfully, it will be more beneficial than a non-committal yes.
It is best for the letter of recommendation to be written by someone who has been a supervisor or mentor to the applicant. It should be about one page long, and have the traditional three parts: opening, body and closing.
The writer should describe the relationship and the reason for writing the letter. What was your relationship to the applicant? Supervisor? Advisor? Professor? Your relationship will help the reader define the context for your comments.
The body of the recommendation should provide specifics, based on your observations. It might include:
The applicant may have particular strengths or areas of specific knowledge, a degree in another area, or related work experience. All of these could be mentioned here.
The closing of the letter should be a brief summary of previous points, and clearly state that you recommend the applicant for the position. Finally, you should give your contact information, in case they wan to contact you directly.
If you meet with the applicant regarding the letter, it can give you a good deal of information. They should tell you about what this letter will be used for generally (employment, graduate school, scholarships, etc.). The applicant should also give you information about their skills, experience, strengths and qualifications - anything that will help you with your letter. Ask for a list of accomplishments, organizations, or any other relevant information. A copy of his or her resume is an easy way to have this information at hand. You need to find out what sets the application apart from the average. The more you know, the better letter you can write. Starting the conversation can be as easy as asking, "Why should I write this letter?"
Ask the applicant if the letter will be 'open' or confidential. It is their choice. If it is confidential, you will need to send the letter to the Career Services office where they have opened a placement file, or to the organization directly. Some employers prefer confidential letters, while others are not as concerned about keeping reference letters confidential.
Character references are generally used to support a candidate in terms of their personal qualities, rather than professional abilities. They are generally not very valuable for employers, and to not speak to the applicant's experience or strengths as assessed by a supervisor or mentor.
Many words we use in every day conversation are 'loaded' with meaning for a prospective supervisor.
Some of the points for you to try to address, often listed as tools on which to base selection:
|intelligence||willingness to accept responsibility||leadership|
|imagination||interpersonal skills||ability to handle conflict|
|competitiveness||direction||strong work ethic|
|teamwork||appropriate vocational skills||goal achievement|
|self-knowledge||flexibility energy level||initiative|
|self-confidence||ability to communicate|
Gets along with others? Outgoing? Shy? Sense of humor? Good sport? Acceptance of other ideas? Ability to communicate?
Independent worker, leadership role, intellectual courage (defends own ideas) Attitude facilitator, optimistic, enthusiastic, positive, sense of fairness, responsible, curious, interested, motivated
Values, perseverance, ethics, integrity Maturity level social independence, judgment, competence, work habits, pride in work, process of inquiry, receptive to feedback, communication abilities, participation, enthusiasm for job, helps others improve
Ability to work with necessary equipment, willingness to learn fast, ability to learn as many software programs as possible, knowledge about intranets/networking, internet savvy