Self-Promotion 101 for the Self-conscious
November 5, 2009 6:57 PM   Subscribe

You: Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation/professional reference letter? Boss: Sure! Hell, you write it, I'll sign it. You: ??? You: [Profit]

What. Job reference letters are like this:
Prunella did an excellent job in this position and was an asset to our organization during her tenure with the office. She has excellent written and verbal communication skills, is extremely organized, can work independently and is able to follow through to ensure that the job gets done... blah blah blah Prunella is so awesome blah.
  • Am I really supposed to write something like this about myself? It seems like the highest praise I'd be able to give myself without feeling like an asshole would still be way more measured than I would hope my rec letter would be!
  • Or maybe does the fact that the guy wants me to write it mean he's actually lukewarm about being a reference for me? (I don't think this is true...)
  • Is there any polite professional way to say NO U to this?
I am proud of the job I've done, I do think that I've brought something valuable to the company, AND I've got "Writer" in my job title for fuck's sake -- but I am just paralyzed by this. Have you ever written your own rec letter? How? WTF did you write?
posted by Methylviolet to Work & Money (32 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it's not normal to write your own rec letter, but it could be a blessing. Eschew modesty. Write exactly what you want your potential employer to know about you.

Also: Prunella was the best possible name you could have chosen. Hi-frickin-larious.

P.S. If you want me to draft something, memail me and tell me what you do and what you want to do at your new job. It could at least help you get started.
posted by nosila at 7:00 PM on November 5, 2009

Or maybe does the fact that the guy wants me to write it mean he's actually lukewarm about being a reference for me? (I don't think this is true...)

I'm pretty sure it just means he's lazy and unprofessional.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:01 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Am I really supposed to write something like this about myself?

Yes. Your boss has successfully passed on to you a piece of work which is more important to you than it is to him. No way to say "NO U." Just do it, praise yourself somewhat more than you feel comfortable with, and hand it over for his signature.
posted by escabeche at 7:01 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

My experience has been most people whom you ask to write you letters of recommendation ask you to write at least a draft for them, as you are aware of the salient points that you want a recommendation letter to convey.

They then take the draft you wrote and modify it to suit their comfort, sign, and you're done.
posted by dfriedman at 7:02 PM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

Oh, I had to do that before. It's not that uncommon. It's a great chance to say everything you quoted in italics, but instead of leaving it so generic, give specific examples of each (keep it short though). Forget modesty, this opportunity means your boss trusts you enough to write it, will sign pretty much everything awesome you write about yourself, no matter how douchey it feels to you to write it. So just go all out, make your recommendation stand out from all the other copy-and-pasted ones that lazy bosses use. Good luck!
posted by KateHasQuestions at 7:05 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Am I really supposed to write something like this about myself?

Yes. Contrary to the first poster, I have seen this to be commonplace anywhere except rec letters from teachers.

That being said, I sympathize with you completely. It's a really awkward feeling to write a rec letter for yourself. You have to do it anyway.

Or maybe does the fact that the guy wants me to write it mean he's actually lukewarm about being a reference for me?

It can, but it usually means they are busy, and they know that all rec letters sound the same and it doesn't really matter what they say as long as you're able to provide them to whomever.

Is there any polite professional way to say NO U to this?

I'd advise against that. If he had time to write the letter, or was willing to do so, he would do it.
posted by Nattie at 7:05 PM on November 5, 2009

I've done it. Just be truthful. If he's willing to let you write your own letter, he probably thinks you do a great job and trusts your judgment.
posted by something something at 7:06 PM on November 5, 2009

He gets to sign off on it... feel like an arsehole for an afternoon, it'll be worth it.

Or maybe does the fact that the guy wants me to write it mean he's actually lukewarm about being a reference for me?

No, not the case. Smile. You're not all bad.

Is there any polite professional way to say NO U to this?

Not really. Also, it'd be a silly thing to do.
posted by pompomtom at 7:12 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in the its not that unusual or unprofessional camp. I've been asked to do it and have in turn asked others to do it when they want one form me. These letters take a lot of time, time I don't have.

Write a road map with all of the salient points, don't over do it, but don't under do it either. If they want to change something they will, but you know what you've done and what applies to the job you're seeking. Help them help you.

It is a big sign of confidence and trust to hand you this task! Make it easy for them to praise you and recommend you for this position.
posted by cestmoi15 at 7:14 PM on November 5, 2009

I've done this before. Just be truthful. After all, he will probably read it before he signs it. Don't worry too much about it - it's a common practice.
posted by patheral at 7:16 PM on November 5, 2009

Wow. I had no idea this was so common. Seems strange to me on one level, but I would still say it is beneficial to you in the long run. If the boss doesn't want to write it, the boss probably wouldn't do a great job if she did write it.
posted by nosila at 7:17 PM on November 5, 2009

I have always been asked to write my own letters of recommendation. If they don't agree with what you write, they don't have to sign it.

So, enlist the help of friends and family; write a draft, and get feedback as to whether it's over-the-top or not. Keep in mind you're writing as him, so the safest way to do this is think back (or review hardcopy documentation) to feedback he's given you in the past, and call those specific things out in the letter. It doesn't have to be word-for-word -- you just want to make sure that if he has, let's say, praised:

- Your commitment to getting the job done on time
- Your ability to motivate your co-workers to a higher standard of quality
- Your detail-oriented approach to planning

You then write a letter like so:

"To whom it may concern,

I have been [your] [relationship] at [company] for [time period], and during that time have [relationshipped] [you] on a daily basis through [some milestone, like number of projects or growth of the company.]

[you] has been a commendable employee, always showing a strong commitment to getting the job done on time, no matter the obstacles in his path. Her efforts in this regard have been commendable, and have had a positive and measurable impact on the [measurable/pseudo-measurable metric] of our [product/results/whatever]. [you]'s morale, attitude and detail-oriented approach has directly contributed to the success of our team.

I am personally disappointed that [you] will be leaving our organization, but am pleased to be able to provide her this letter of recommendation.


When you offer it for signing, state that you've appreciated his past praise for those specific things you wrote down, and that you are of course prepared to make any changes he deems appropriate before he signs.

Good luck!
posted by davejay at 7:21 PM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

Er, I mixed up a few his's and her's there, so don't copy anything that I wrote verbatim if you were so inclined.
posted by davejay at 7:22 PM on November 5, 2009

Try to work in the phrase: "a towering giant in her field."
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:27 PM on November 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

Being asked to write your own letter of recommendation is usually a good sign.

Write letter as if you were writing the presentation letter that goes with CV, but then switch the voice to be his instead of yours. Go light on adjectives, go strong on concrete, demonstrated achievements. Rake your brain for every piece of cool stuff you have done and hype the hell out of them all. Use comparative instead of superlatives, such as, "this person made the best project the last 10 years," or, "this person is in the best 5 percentile."
posted by gmarceau at 7:29 PM on November 5, 2009

Very common, and I agree--a good sign of trust from your boss.

First, step out of your shoes and imagine for a second that you're writing a recommendation for someone else, an intern or someone you manage or something like that. What would you emphasize in order to help that person get the job/be accepted into the program/be approved for foster parenting?

Now imagine that you are your boss and are writing the letter about you. What would you emphasize about your own work? Where have you taken initiative? What have you been praised for in your reviews? What stands out about you? And how does it relate to what you're being recommended for?

As long as you stay honest, you really can't praise yourself too much. And think of it also as a way to get this information in front of your boss again in one page, you know, in case they're thinking of year-end bonuses around this time. I'm not a big fan of the "write your boss a memo about your accomplishments" thing, but this is a way to get the same benefit without so much brown on your nose.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:53 PM on November 5, 2009

Think of it in these terms:

Your boss is very busy. You are asking for a favor that detracts from his/her attention to workload. Your boss trusts you to know yourself and to speak honestly about yourself.

To say NoU is to say you are more important than your boss' other workload issues. Not good.

Suck it up and write the letter. Davejay has given you a very good start. Look at yourself from your own perspective and then, using your skills as an author, try to see yourself from your boss' perspective.

Place the letter in front of your boss and thank him/her for trusting you with this task.

Good luck!
posted by Old Geezer at 7:56 PM on November 5, 2009

Yes, nine times out of ten, I've been asked to write at least a draft (or bullet point what to include) in my own rec letter. I think it is fairly common. Put your best face forward and go to town. Be very specific in writing about actual accomplishments and behaviors.

I think bosses asking you to write your own is incredibly common if not the standard. Its expected for the most part.
posted by Bueller at 7:59 PM on November 5, 2009

I'm pretty sure it just means he's lazy and unprofessional.


It's a really common thing, and in practice it's high praise and a sign of trust. I can think of people I'd do that for, and also others for whom I'd definitely want to write the letter myself, being careful to be honest and balanced with the endorsements. By letting you know he'll (probably) help you with whatever you need here, he's saying "I think so much of you that you can say whatever you like and I'll endorse it."

Letters of reference have different needs for different purposes. Unless he's Psychic Boss, he can't know what you want to emphasize and what you wish included without getting a list from you, and at that point he might as well have you write it. If he wrote you one that wasn't good enough or didn't praise the right things, then what? You'd ask him to make it better? Now that would be a sticky situation, and he'd probably rather avoid that too.

If you're still icked out by it, write a draft and ask him to revise it.
posted by rokusan at 8:02 PM on November 5, 2009

"Very common, and I agree--a good sign of trust from your boss. "

Agreeing with the peanut here.
posted by rokusan at 8:03 PM on November 5, 2009

This is totally normal. Yes, it's totally annoying. No, it has nothing to do with him being lukewarm and ZOMG you can't say NO U.

The huge advantage is that you can highlight and focus on the specific aspects of your contributions that are particularly relevant, instead of having your boss guess what it is that you wish he would discuss.

If it helps (and it has for me) think of it as a draft, not "writing your own rec letter." Write in the measured way that you hope that he'll exceed and go over the letter with him, adding that you're uncomfortable writing the (effusive) praise, could he add his own thoughts in that matter? (If he's like NO U, then add some praise.)
posted by desuetude at 9:11 PM on November 5, 2009

Nth that this is standard. It's much easier to edit a draft than write from scratch. Plus, he doesn't have to worry about what exactly your next job is and try to say relevant things. Write your rec letter to basically say what your resume cover sheet says, with superlative adjectives and adverbs. Make them consistent -> your cover sheet says you're such and such; your boss enthusiastically says "What she said."

You might even choose one bullet, think of a concrete example of what exactly you did that demonstrates [desirable feature], and write yourself a little commendation for it in the rec letter.
posted by ctmf at 9:29 PM on November 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, this is really helpful. I did not realize it was so common. I guess this is one more job skill I need to develop.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:55 PM on November 5, 2009

Joining the chorus: I have had to do this, you know better than he does what skills will help you get the job that you want, and go ahead and be reasonably praiseful. In my experience, he read it, said "add this sentence," and wrote one last extremely nice sentence.

Try to work in the phrase: "a towering giant in her field."
posted by salvia at 10:10 PM on November 5, 2009

Try to work in the phrase: "a towering giant in her field."

I didn't know basketball players got jobs with letters of recommendation...
posted by Mike1024 at 11:58 PM on November 5, 2009

I've been invited to do this twice in my working life. The first time around, I was 20 and totally overawed and intimidated. I wrote something like "he was employed by us from ... to .... and gave every satisfaction." Looking back, I could weep!

The second time around was 20 years later, and I remembered my earlier fears. So, just as peanut m says, I imagined I was writing it for somebody else, like an intern I had been coaching. I'm convinced the result was a major factor in getting the next job.

Don't hold back, but don't go obviously over the top. And ask a trusted friend to look over it, before you submit it to your boss for signature, in case he/she wants to make any suggestion that will make you feel more comfortable with it.

Good luck!
posted by aqsakal at 12:01 AM on November 6, 2009

I heard of someone else doing this before I was ever asked to, so it wasn't much of a surprise. At first I was kind of dismayed, in a lazy way, but it's kind of neat to be able to write glowingly about yourself in the 3rd person.
posted by ropeladder at 7:25 AM on November 6, 2009

Best answer: In my experience, most of the people I've ever asked for written references on anything have asked me to write the letter. However, I always struggle with this, since I'd genuinely like to know what they think my strengths are or what has stood out for them. More recently, I've learned to give them a quick call to ask that information before I put it into the letter, so that I have something that sounds more fresh. If they say, "Well, just write what you want", I now say, "I really appreciate that opportunity and I certainly will be including relevant points. To make the letter sound really fresh, though, I wondered if you could tell me a couple of qualities or experiences with me that have really stood out." Most people will blurt out a sentence or two, even if they're rushed.
posted by acoutu at 9:10 AM on November 6, 2009

Best answer: In most cases when you ask for a letter of recommendation -- formal or informal -- you are asking for a favor.

You're asking someone ...
1) To invest time and effort in describing your soft/hard skills and effectiveness
2) To back up claims made on your CV or resume
3) and to vouch for you

In this case, I'm with the crowd that doesn't see any harm in writing your own recommendation and getting sign-off.


For all you others out there seeking recommendations … a couple of things to consider before you make the ask. Have in mind …

1) Where this recommendation fits into the story you want to tell

And to support your story…
2) Which combination of hard/soft skills should the author highlight with examples from your shared work experience.

Be specific! Identify the experiences and combinations that you believe make you unique. (As a side note, if you’re not familiar with the STAR method for writing achievement statements, learn it now.)
Provide guidance to the individual writing the recommendation. Remember that the author of your recommendation will be familiar with who you currently are and what you have done. Only providing glowing prose around your existing work isn't sufficient. It’s better that the glowing prose accompanies specifics examples of your skills and experience, which are relevant to the opportunity you seek.

Ergo, I believe that the benefit of writing your own recommendation is that it provides an opportunity for you to reflect on your experience, isolate the relevant your relevant strengths/weaknesses, and develop a story about how your current role makes you a good fit for the role you want.
posted by cheez-it at 9:41 AM on November 6, 2009

Response by poster: Yay! Acoutu actually gave me the NO U that I really really wanted. And there is a STAR method to teach me shamelessness -- thanks, Cheez-it. You were all very helpful.

See, I have two situations -- one, my day-to-day supervisor who knows everything there is to know about my performance already, and two (more worrisome) the Director of Operations who apparently knows I work there. The DO suddenly stopped me in the hall the other day and asked me who my boss was. As I'm trying to guess whether he wants my supervisor, my contract administrator, or my recruiter -- he tells me that he wants to know because he wants to nominate me for this cash performance award program. OK, that's my contract administrator. And (!) -- thanks! I realize a few days later that this endorsement from him would be very impressive to potential employers, if he were willing to write a line or two on letterhead, and I told him so. I was hoping he'd tell me what what I did that he liked. He said great, very warmly, just shoot me an email. This email has not been sent -- nor the one my direct supervisor asked for -- because, well, !

I'm a technical writer at a soap factory, and anyone who deals with SOPs or work instructions or soap specifications is going to see my name a lot, and probably email me or get emailed by me, as he has. But that's pretty much everyone in the plant. It would never have entered my mind to approach this guy, he's completely outside my chain of command and three levels above my boss. I don't know what I did that he liked -- or that one of the many folks below him may have liked and mentioned to him. He may have me confused with someone else, for all I know.

So while it is true that I am bashful in general, I can't see why this guy would care whether I am awesome or not -- which made writing this Dear Director of Operations, I am awesome for these reasons email doubly hard for me. But there's no honorable retreat now. So thanks to your help, I'll write this as factually as possible, with accoutu's professionally-worded NO U in the preamble, and give it him on Monday. 48 hours should be enough time to overthink this.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:50 PM on November 6, 2009

Wuh? Just shoot him an email and you haven't done it yet? Oh man, you gotta jump on those opportunities! Did he even want the email to be the lines of text for him to include, or just an email reminder with the details he'll need?
posted by salvia at 10:29 AM on November 7, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, well.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:11 AM on November 8, 2009

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