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The Art of Writing Your Own Reference Letter

January 30, 2017

For those of you new to academia, you will soon learn that most of us in our profession end up drafting (or fully writing!) the reference letters we submit for jobs, awards, and other purposes. It is quite common to  ask an adviser or colleague to write a letter of reference or recommendation, only to have them reply, "I'd be happy to. Send me something to work with and I will fill the rest in" or, "Sure. Draft something up and I will send it."

 

For those seasoned in academia, drafting your own reference letter becomes a breeze. However, I often find that doctoral students and junior faculty have difficulties in drafting their own letters. For some, their humility prevents them from drafting a stellar letter. For others, they may not know what skills and achievements they should include in the letter. Regardless, here are some tips for drafting or writing your own reference letters. 

 

1. This isn't the time to be humble. Sing (though don't embellish!) your accomplishments! 

 

Jobs and awards are often competitive, so make sure that your skills and accomplishments stand out! It is perfectly fine to explain why your research is important or that the number of publications reflects your high level of productivity. However, be careful of not taking such accolades too far so they are embellishments or (even worse!) lies. Although your research may be important, referring to it as groundbreaking may be a stretch that reviewers will see through. Or, claiming that you played a larger role on grants or projects may come back to hurt you if the reviewers dig a little deeper into your background. Stick to the facts, but make sure the facts sell yourself.

 

2. Add personality to your letter through examples and personal stories. 

 

In my years of reviewing others' reference letters, I have come across many mediocre reference letters that the candidate may not have realized are mediocre. Rarely does a reference letter have negative information about a candidate, but they may use vague or bland descriptions of the candidate. The reviewers may have a difficult time understanding if the reference did not want to write the letter on behalf of the candidate or if the reference did not know the candidate well. Either way, a bland reference is often just as bad as a negative one. 

 

Adding personal stories or examples to your letters will allow reviewers to see more sincerity on behalf of the reference while also getting a feel for the personality of the candidate. Saying that a candidate has a "sincere interest in teaching" doesn't say much. However, the same phrase accompanied by examples from qualitative student evaluations, details about the mentoring your sought out to improve your teaching, or an example of a student that you may have particularly reached out to says a lot more. 

 

3. Be prepared to write 2-3 letters for the same job or award. 

 

For most instances that we need reference letters, there is often a request for 2 or more. Hence, you may have to develop a strategy so that you can draft several letters that have distinctly different information in them, since they will all be reviewed by the same reviewers. Here are some tips:

  • Think about what each reference brings to your application and tailor that letter to that area. For instance, if one reference is your research mentor, focus that letter on your research accomplishments and focus on teaching accomplishments for the reference that you were a teaching assistant for.

  • Make sure to vary common phrases in each letter. You do not want all three reference letters that are supposed to be from three different people to all start with, "It is my sincere pleasure to write this letter of recommendation for Jane Smith for the open faculty position in your department." 

  • Ahead of time, have three different draft letter templates ready so that you are prepared to write multiple letters when the time comes. 

  • Make sure that each reference knows you well enough so that they are comfortable with submitting the letter you drafted. 

4. Ease the burden of your references.

 

Even though you might write the bulk of the letters, it still takes work for your references to review and submit the letters you need for applications. Keep your references happy! Some tips:

  • Ask your reference to write letters for you well before you need them. If you know that you will be going on the job market in the upcoming season, ask your references for their support several weeks before you need the first letters. 

  • Be organized by drafting the letters on electronic letterhead and provide them with pre-addressed and stamped envelopes if they are to be mailed. 

  • I initially asked four people to be references for me when I was on the job market so that I could rotate letter submissions and reduce the number of letters needed from any one reference. 

5. Pick the right people to be reference. 

  • Start early in your doctoral or faculty career with developing relationships with faculty and others in your field. It will be easier to get recommendations from people you have known for several years than scrambling at the last minute with a new faculty member who only has only known you for a couple of months. 

  • The rank and experience of your reference may be important. For instance, if you apply for a tenure-track job and your references are all un-tenured assistant professors or clinical faculty, the reviewers may question their ability to assess your potential to achieve tenure in several years. It is wise to have a mix of people submitting reference, such as administrators, senior faculty, and junior faculty. 

  • To highlight again, it's best not to pick someone who does not know you well. However, if there is a potential reference that would be extremely helpful for your application, you may be able to find someone to help you get a reference from that person. For example, if you are a junior faculty member and are submitting an application for a fellowship or other award, you may find a senior faculty member who knows a senior research administrator who would be willing to submit a reference on your behalf. 

Still need help with writing letters of reference? Here is an example of a reference letter that may be helpful. You can also contact Nicole today for a one-on-one session where she can work with you and your CV to help you write one or more of your reference letters or she can help you with a strategy for managing 

 

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