The person determining whether you are worthy of your desired goal will get information from you by some kind of interview with you. But, as is often the case, we can’t take everyone at face value – and this is where your need for a reference from a third party comes in.
A great reference letter or recommendation letter supplies third-party proof that you are who you say that you are and that you are therefore worthy of serious consideration. You need someone else to back up your story! What you REALLY need is someone else’s signature on the letter other than your own.
You may, however, be asked to provide some, or even all of the “content” of the letter yourself. In this situation, you will be the one putting the words on the page for someone else’s signature. This is often the case when the person asked to provide a reference letter for you is not good with words, not good at writing a professional letter or simply doesn’t have the time to sit down and think of the many glowing things to say about you! This person, however, has agreed to vouch for what you say by putting their name and signature at the bottom of the letter.
Writing a Great Reference Letter can easily take several hours. For this reason, it not unusual for a Manager or Professor to ask you to write a good portion of the letter that they will later be happy to review, edit and sign for you.
If you must write your own reference letter due to the circumstances I just mentioned, keep the following important points in mind during the writing process:
- Remember that you have two different audiences: the one you have asked to sign the letter, and the recipient of your reference letter. While you must satisfy both, the one signing the letter is the more important one, so try to write as much as possible from their perspective.
- Follow the specific formats for each type of reference letter as outlined below.
- Always address numerous positive aspects of yourself and your character. You will want to discuss your strengths, your skills, your abilities, your personality, your aptitude, your community involvement, your hobbies, etc. You obviously want to emphasize your strongest points; however, keep in mind that emphasizing too much attention in one area will create the impression that you are not well-rounded. You want to demonstrate that you are GREAT at many things, not just one or two things.
- Always be honest with yourself when writing your letter. You should certainly focus mostly on your strengths. However, the readers of your letter know that you are human, and as such, know that you are not perfect. If there are things that you are not particularly good at, point them out. This will make you appear both “human” and honest. You want the reader of your letter to realize that you are very competent while at the same time, you have weaknesses just like everyone else, so express these by being open and honest.
- Never, ever brag! Your credibility and your character are your most important assets, and they will remain so throughout your entire life. If you are perceived as a braggart, flinging a big ego around, you’re sunk. You truly cannot risk losing your good reputation by bragging, exaggerating, lying, or assigning more self-importance to yourself than is necessary. People can and will see right through this, and it will only backfire on you. Always be honest, and even if you don’t get everything you ask for, you’ll know you did your best and were truthful about it.
- Unless otherwise indicated, provide a letter that is virtually complete, polished and basically ready to sign. Remember, these people, your references, are doing you a favor, and you don’t want to use up any more of their time than necessary. If you are both completely on the “same wavelength.” they may simply agree to sign your letter as you have written it and hand it right back to you. In my experience, however, this is not usually the case. More often than not, the individual signing the letter will add, delete or re-word a few things congruent to their beliefs in you. Because they are putting their name on your letter, this is absolutely the right thing for them to do, so always accept their changes gracefully and with appreciation.