Six Topics to Consider When Seeking a Written Recommendation

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By Mitchell Friedman, Associate Dean of Career Development and Student Affairs

Published 6.25.13

Now that you’ve decided to seek written recommendations to support your job search/career development efforts, you’ll need to consider those ingredients fundamental to an effective letter. Here’s a list of six items you’ll want to consider to help you maximum the power of such testimonials.

  • The nature of the relationship. Consider how the recommender knows you and for how long.  Ask yourself if the breadth and depth of this interaction is truly conducive to you getting the kind of recommendation that will further your goals.
  • The nature of the work. Reflect on the kind of work you completed while working with/for the individual you’ve asked for a recommendation. Would having someone recommend you for this work benefit you?  If so, you’ll want that person to describe its highlights in the recommendation itself.
  • An assessment of your work on its own merits. The recommender should be able and willing to assess your work, whether that’s in terms of a grade (in a course) or using any other criteria relevant to evaluation.
  • An assessment of your work relative to the achievements of others performing similar tasks. You might ask the recommender to rank your work from the perspective of all individuals he/she has known who’ve completed similar work, assuming the person is able and willing to do so.  I’ve found there are few statements more powerful in a recommendation letter than those that rank your achievement among the top performers the recommender has experienced.
  • Attributes that makes you distinct. Ask the recommender to spell out what stands out about you in your work that’s positive, as well as any other strengths he/she observed while working with you.
  • An unqualified recommendation for future assignments.  Determine whether the recommender is able and willing to recommend you for future work based on this experience.  If so, that support should be stated in the letter.  If not, you’d be wise to seek a recommendation from another individual.

I’ve written hundreds of recommendations, and in the third article in this series I’ll discuss how I continue to do so in a way that keeps me energized and serves the interests of my students and others for whom I complete such letters.

Mitchell Friedman, Associate Dean of Career Development and Student Affairs

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