A good recommendation letter?
“I am thrilled to write a recommendation for Mr. Ryan who is a wonderful, hardworking, conscientious person”. Do you see anything wrong with this statement? If yes, then you are also one of those who are thinking of an important issue that I will be discussing in this post.
We may have all requested a recommendation/reference letter from a professor, an acquaintance, or a colleague. In applying for a much sought after position at an organization, recommendation letters can play a decisive role. At other times, we may have been requested by someone to write a recommendation letter for them. For this purpose, it is important to know the art of writing such a letter that is convincing enough to land someone the right job in an organization or admission in a good school.
Some may also say no to a recommendation letter writing request. That’s perfectly fine, since there is no obligation to do so. It is better to say no if you feel its hard for you to find much positive to say about the person, not because you think that the person does not have anything positive, but because you may not know that person well enough.
More than just writing the recommendation letter, it is quite important to write that letter well. So what makes a letter, a good letter of recommendation? I would say, keep it balanced, and simple. Do not be overly generous in writing paragraphs after paragraphs of embellished sentences that cross the boundaries of reality into fiction. After all, we are humans, and while there may be super humans amongst us, a superman is only found in movies.
It is desirable to choose positive words that actually define a person for whom you are writing the letter. But be mindful that mentioning the same good narratives that fit all, without even pausing for a minute and thinking whether the person actually possesses the qualities mentioned, can in fact prove to be counter productive. Often, by overstating things, the message describing an exceptional person, may lose its value. I am saying this out of experience of sitting in admission committees (before starting my PhD) where assessing potential candidates for the program based on recommendation letters sometimes made me wonder, do such people even exist? I can say with all honesty that when face-to-face interviews were conducted, faculty members would try to match what was in the letters with what they could assess from meeting the person during interviews.
While I argue against writing recommendation letters that are overly embellished with praise, I also want to clarify that well-written letters are important. What I am saying is that such positivity should be based on reality, and that a balance must be maintained whenever engaging in such an activity. Yes there are individuals out there both in academia and outside, who would write recommendation letters that would seem very nice to you (hey, who dislikes praise? :)), but realistically speaking, how much value would such a letter have when compared with how the person for whom the letter is written really is.
By writing a cogent letter of recommendation that is balanced you will be doing a needed favor to the person who needs it. Moreover, it is your own reputation at stake when writing such a letter. So the best policy is to keep it simple, but more importantly, keep it real. The emphasis is not to be on how many fancy words are used to describe the qualities of a person, but on how well the argument is laid out that is supposed to be convincing and elegant. There is nothing more convincing than natural expression that is pure and simple.