Requesting from professors or former bosses can be a daunting task, but it could get worse if they ask you to write your own. This is why you need to learn how to write your own letter of recommendation. Even if you’ve been in several of their courses, submitted multiple projects to them, spent time with them in office hours, and exchanged basic pleasantries with them, it can be hard to feel confident in their evaluation of you. Students – even (or perhaps especially) top students – are notorious for their self-doubt. That’s not always a bad thing, as it keeps you striving to do more and do better, but it can lead to a significant under-evaluation of your successes, accomplishments, and overall standing as a student.
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So, when you send that request for a letter of recommendation, it may be done with bated breath and a sense of uncertainty – What if they say no? What if they laugh at your request? What if they’ve just been being nice to you? Well, first things first: Relax. The latter two of these are highly unlikely, and if the former happens, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. You should be asking for letters from professors with whom you’ve been building rapport for some time – those in whose classes you’ve done well, those who have evaluated your work, and so on – and if you’ve built that rapport, there’s very little chance that they’ll say no. If you’re desperate for, say, a third letter-writer and are reaching out to any and every prof you’ve ever met, well, then you may get a “no”. But, unless you just completely bombed a course, those negative responses are often in your best interest. A professor will usually only refuse to write a letter if they feel they simply don’t know you and your work well enough to write you the kind of recommendation you need to actually succeed. You’ll need to search for someone else at that point, but that’s better than a poor or ineffective letter of recommendation! In any case, all of this points to the need to find quality letter-writers and build relationships with your professors throughout your time in university.
At this point, you may assume that your request for a letter of recommendation will be met with one of two answers: “Yes, happy to!” or, “No, sorry”. Well, things are actually a bit more complicated than that. Imagine seeing that reply to your request hit your inbox, taking a deep breath to brace yourself before opening it (“Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes…”), and then seeing this:
Hi! Sure, happy to help! Go ahead put together a draft and I’ll review and sign it.
For many, the response to such a request would be abject horror! You may think that this is some kind of test of your ethical sensibilities, or an indication that your professor doesn’t really want to act as a referee for you. Relax, it’s neither. If you’ve never seen a request like this before, it’s okay – it’s not all that uncommon, and it doesn’t reflect negatively on you. In fact, it likely indicates two things: 1. That your prof is over-worked, but still wants to support you, and, 2. That they trust you to provide an honest self-evaluation.
In some ways, this request to write your own letter of recommendation can actually be a positive thing. Generally, letters of recommendation aren’t accessible to students – back when they were sent exclusively in hard copy, students and professors had to go to considerable lengths to demonstrate that the student had not accessed the letter, like submitting it in a sealed envelope with the professor’s signature across the seal. This meant that you had no idea what the professor had said about you, and that’s still largely the norm (though some professors may still send their student an open copy of the letter, but that depends on the individual professor and their relationship with the student).
However, if you’re contributing to the letter, then you at least have some idea of what it says, and you have the opportunity to include specifics and ensure the things you want mentioned or highlighted have a good chance of making it into the final draft. Of course, your professor will retain the right to modify the letter in whatever way they want, and you may not get access to that final draft, but you do have a say, which is more than many students have had in the past. So, think of this as an opportunity, and be thankful that your professor thinks highly enough of you to trust you with this task!
Be humble, but acknowledge your accomplishments
By definition, a letter of recommendation is a document that highlights your strengths, assets, and accomplishments. You should be clear and honest about the ways in which you excel academically, and the contributions you’ve made through your research, service, and extra-curriculars (to the extent that this professor is aware of things like your extra-curriculars, volunteering, etc.). A lot of students are uncomfortable discussing themselves in a positive light, but you should be able to objectively acknowledge the things you do and have done well, and those things should be the basis of your letter.
Think about it this way: if you’re asking for a letter of recommendation, that means you’re applying to a competitive program that requires excellence of its applicants (grad school, med school, law school, etc.). You wouldn’t be applying to such a program if you didn’t think you had what it takes to put together a competitive application, right? So, what has led you to consider yourself a viable candidate for that program? Make a list of those qualities, achievements, and strengths that helped you decide to apply, and then determine which of these this professor has witnessed. That will give you some key themes around which to construct your letter. If you’re not sure which kinds of qualities to emphasize, look at the qualities valued by the profession you’re pursuing and use these as a guide. Academic excellence is a constant in all fields, of course. As well, resilience, dependability, community service, intellectual inquisitiveness, critical and creative thinking, and collegiality are all valued in a wide variety of fields.
Just be sure to retain a measure of humility. While you're likely an outstanding student, you wouldn't want to claim that you are "by far, the most impressive, hyper-intelligent, and promising student" your professor has ever taught, for example. First, that's just not language used in a letter of recommendation. Second, that content isn't actually very useful, as will be discussed further shortly. Finally, unless you can say without a doubt that you are the top student of all the thousands of students your professor has known, that would be an excessively bold claim to make.
Speak to specifics, and don’t try to cover everything
The above said, you likely won’t be able to discuss every single strength, asset, or accomplishment, so after making that list, you’ll need to narrow it down. Briefly discuss some of the most note-worthy contributions you’ve made in this professor’s courses, including significant projects or papers you’ve completed for them, or any work you’ve done together. You’ll likely end up with 2-3 major themes or qualities to emphasize, supported by a few examples. A letter of recommendation is usually around 1 single-spaced page, so use that length as a guide for how much content you should include.
When I was a graduate student, I was on a hiring committee for my department. I remember sitting in the massive office of our department chair, reviewing files and letters of recommendation with others on the committee. As we read through one candidate’s letters, the chair let out a hearty laugh, “Oh dear, ‘a hard worker’? Talk about the death knell for your application!” Everyone else laughed knowingly, and I sat there very, very confused. When I asked why being a “hard worker” was such a bad thing, they explained it to me: it’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a “hard worker”, it’s that the term is cliché and very imprecise. Essentially, if the best praise someone can give you is that you’re a “hard worker”, that’s seen as quite unfortunate. So, avoid cliché phrases like this and aim for clear demonstrations of your skills and abilities. If you do consider yourself a “hard worker”, then offer examples of times when you went above and beyond expectations or successfully juggled multiple pressing responsibilities. This will be much more effective.
Show, don’t tell
Brief anecdotes that demonstrate your strengths are always more effective than lists of qualities or accomplishments, and letters of recommendation often include such stories. Using specific examples of exceptional projects, meaningful interactions, or professional observations, and use narrative that shows the reader your excellence in action, rather than just telling them that you are a stand-out student.
Ensure the grammar and style are impeccable
While your professor will still review and edit the letter, you want to be keenly aware of your grammar and style as you’re writing. Remember, you’re not writing in your own voice; you’re writing as your professor. So, use a semi-formal but professional style, and proofread, proofread, proofread. Your writing should be impeccable, both for the letter itself and for you to continue demonstrating your compositional prowess to your professor.
You can think of a letter of recommendation as similar to a short essay, with an intro and “thesis”, body, and conclusion. The “thesis” is that you’re a strong student who will succeed in the program to which you are applying, and the support for that thesis comes in the specifics of the work you’ve done for and with your professor.
The introduction is the opening paragraph, where you should include a clear statement of support (e.g., “I am happy to write in support of [Student’s] application to [program]”), as well as an indication of your relationship with the professor, the time you’ve known them, and the capacity in which you’ve worked together (e.g., if they’re your supervisor, if you’ve worked for them as a teaching or research assistant, etc.). Include specifics like the courses or projects you’ve had together, and anything else that demonstrates how well they know you and your work – the better they know you and your work, the better they are able to evaluate your potential for future success.
The body would consist of 2-3 paragraphs with specific examples and anecdotes that support the “thesis”. Again, you can discuss courses you’ve completed, projects you’ve submitted, professional exchanges, discussions of your volunteer or extra-curricular work (if your professor is familiar with these), and any other aspect of your professional relationship with your letter-writer.
The conclusion wraps up the letter, often using this opportunity to reflect a bit on personal attributes, as opposed to professional accomplishments (e.g., inquisitiveness, collegiality, confidence, etc.), and emphasizing enthusiasm for writing the recommendation. As well, an invitation to reach out for any additional information traditionally ends a letter of recommendation, often with the professor’s email address and – if they’re comfortable doing so – their home phone number (this final detail, in particular, emphasizes the letter-writer’s enthusiasm for recommending the student – an invitation to call them at home suggests they’re particularly invested in the student’s success).
“I’m really not comfortable with this!” Other Options for Writing a Letter of Recommendation for Yourself
If you simply cannot bring yourself to write a letter of recommendation for yourself, there are a couple of options for you.
First, you can always say no. The request to write your own letter of recommendation is just that, a request – not a demand. But this is probably no a good idea and you don't want to antagonize or argue with someone who you hope to paint a positive picture of you. It is highly unlikely that saying no will result in you not getting a letter at all from this person. If this is the case, arrange to meet in person to discuss your concerns and reservations. To this meeting, you should bring materials to help your professor write the letter quickly, easily, and effectively. So, bring your proposal or personal essay from your application, your CV/resume, and a brief write-up of the key qualities you think this professor can speak to, including your courses with them, the projects you’ve completed for them, and your marks in those courses. Remember, your professor likely has hundreds, if not thousands, of other students, so you want to make this easy for them. It’s much easier for you to compile your own individual information than it is for your professor to go back through possibly years’ worth of courses and student information to isolate your specific connections with them. But at the end of the day nothing is easier than you writing the letter for them and letting them edit it. So try not to say "no".
That said, many students would be just as uncomfortable saying no to their professor as they would be writing their own letter of recommendation. So, you can always propose something in between writing the full letter itself and the above suggestion of saying no but offering materials for reference. If you’re not ready to write something all the way from “Dear Selection Committee” to “Sincerely, Professor Z”, you can work primarily on what would be the body of the letter. Assemble some bullet points, specific examples of you demonstrating your strengths in connection with this professor, notes on the work and projects you’ve done that you think could be highlighted, and some discussion of what you hope the professor can speak to in their letter. Again, thinking of the letter as a brief essay, compile the “research” for them, to make finalizing the letter itself easier.
However you decide to move forward after receiving a request to write your own letter of recommendation, remember that the letter-writer will still have final say. While you want to put sincere effort and thought into framing the draft you compose, if there’s anything they feel is missing, anything they think should be worded differently, anything that doesn’t represent their voice, they will edit it and make it what it needs to be. So, consider taking this opportunity to ensure that your letter of recommendation does and says all the things you hope it will do and say!
To your success,
Your friends at BeMo
BeMo Academic Consulting
Image credit: John-Mark Smith