Now, now, now, that title is not meant to come across in any sort of sarcastic way. I really mean it: If you need a letter of recommendation, these are the three steps that I suggest you take:
- Ask a professor (or employer or colleague) who would unequivocally, enthusiastically endorse you as a great student/intern/employee/[fill in the blank];
- Ask your endorser if they'd mind if you (yes, I mean YOU) wrote the letter yourself;
- Leave your letter open to their tweaks and suggestions, and do not forget to get their signature when all is said and done.
This advice came from my experience with my second internship (no, not the one I was fired from). I was interning at a small little public relations firm in lower Manhattan. I was nearing the end of the experience (it was a summer internship) and I knew I needed to secure a letter before I went back to school. I had done exceptionally well at this internship, and I knew my colleagues and supervisors liked and respected me.
Given the previous summer's debacle, I needed this letter. It was my last opportunity to secure a professional letter before I graduated from college. So I knocked on Julia's (my leader's) door, and asked her for one. Her response surprised me. With that huge smile of hers, she looked me square in the face and said:
"You write the letter and I'll sign it."
Uh.... Say what?
I retreated to my desk, baffled. MY HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE EXPERIENCES FORGOT TO MENTION THIS PART.
Your bosses write your letters. Your teachers write your letters. Your professors write your letters. Anyone BUT YOU writes your letters. Right? RIGHT?!
Wrong. And I'll tell you why.
After a few minutes of pondering this "dilemma," I decided that I could never be so pompous as to write a letter on my own behalf. So I went back to her office and told her so. I told her that I was reallyyyy uncomfortable with this weird system.
She laughed and explained to me that I could write a much better letter about my own work than she possibly could. After all, I had done the work, and I knew the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. She was very far removed from the intern-experience, she explained, and at that point could not comment quite as effectively on the nuances of the job as I could. To be sure, she was able to comment on the product of my work; and that was another detail that she encouraged me to put in the letter.
As it turned out, I wrote a kick-butt letter on my own behalf; she enthusiastically endorsed my performance that summer by signing on the dotted line; I finished the internship on a high note...
...And thirteen years later I use Julia's system with my own students.
If you think my posts are strictly about the student-experience, you are wrong. I was not always in the field of education, but I promise you that each and every professional experience I've had outside of education has informed my approach to education in both large and small ways.
So, when students ask me for a letter of recommendation, I ask them to write their own. They usually hate this response. Some of them might start whining. I once had a student who flat out refused. But the fact remains that they can write a much stronger letter than I ever could about their performance. In most cases, I provide them with a template and a sample of a letter, and send them on their way.
The beautifully constructed and thoughtful letters that they produce on their own behalf are always mind-blowing.
Letters of recommendation often take an extremely long time for a professor (or employer or colleague) to write, and I believe that this, in part, is due to the fact that we write as outsiders. We are not you. (Duh.) It is much easier (and faster) for you to write about, and comment on, your own work. It just is.
If you need a letter right away, write it yourself so that the only thing the endorser needs to do is read it over, possibly tweak it, and sign off.
I think you'll be surprised at how many people are on board with this. In a very real way, you've just saved your letter-writer a TON of time by asking them if you might construct the letter yourself.
No one on the planet cares as much about your work as you do. No one. I like to say that I do, but that is not realistic. You care about your own work, success, and accomplishments more than anyone else possibly could. Think about it. It is your work, your success, and your accomplishments we're talking about, here. How on earth is anyone else even capable of caring about your own work as much as you are?
Writing your own letter of recommendation is good practice with thinking about the precise qualities you bring to the table. This is nothing to be passive about - if you want to stand out.
And finally, I practice what I preach. I recently needed to secure a letter for something I'm interested in doing this summer. I gave my boss the language she needed to furnish the letter quickly.
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