Format and tips for college recommendation letters?
April 18, 2005 1:26 PM   Subscribe

On the preferred format of college admission recommendation letters: Are general, "to whom it may concern" style letters given as much credence as letters targeted to a specific school and situation? Also, any general tips for recommendation letters from a previous employer?

I'm getting ready to ask a previous employer for such a letter. She is the owner of the company, and someone with whom I worked quite closely. My guess is she will oblige any request I ask of her in terms of this letter, and considering her's is somewhat of a small business, she may not have written too many of them in the past. If appropriate, what suggestions might I give her in terms of content? Any specific tips on what key things admissions counsellors are looking for in these letters?
posted by dustinAFN to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Specific is better...Hyperbole is mandatory (there's been just as much letter inflation as grade inflation).

You should give your boss plenty of time to write the latter (a few weeks). Provide a resume, your application details, and your personal statement. Also, if you feel it would be welcome, provide some how-to's .
posted by duck at 1:36 PM on April 18, 2005

"To Whom" seems distant to me; more personalized is better.

If your job duties were closely related to what you were studying, have her say you were the greatest engineer/writer/teacher ever. If the job wasn't closely related, but even if it was, have her write about your general characteristics; you were (of course) responsible, easy to work with, motivated, very very interested in your field, etc. Generally a college should say somewhere in their literature or on their admissions section of their website what they are looking for in a potential student. Go with that as a rubric, and make sure it gets covered.

A good way to do that (I just went through the whole rec letter thing, so this is all fresh in my mind!) is to give her a list of "talking points"; she may not know certain things about you that you want to have in the letter, or maybe she doesn't remember them. So take each concept that you want highlighted in the letter, and make sure to give her a lot of info to back it up with. Like "I was a motivated employee" then follow with bullet points about the various ways you went above and beyond. It will make the process easier for her, and make your letter a lot more impressive.
posted by apple scruff at 3:04 PM on April 18, 2005

I would only give a list of talking points if she asks. I know I wouldn't take a list of talking points from a student and would think it overly-slick if they offered such a list.

Sure they've probably forgotten about stuff, that's why you provide your resume and give several weeks notice.
posted by duck at 3:22 PM on April 18, 2005

What duck said. Hopefully the person knows you well enough not to need talking points, and having your resume and application details will refresh their memory sufficiently. I have been asked for them by a recommender once, but I never would have provided them unasked.
posted by grouse at 3:49 PM on April 18, 2005

I haven't been on an academic admissions committee, but having recently served on an academic *hiring* committee, I found that tailored letters were absolutely essential (I really can not emphasize that enough. You need to provide a personalized letter). Given the kind of competition students currently face, you want to do everything to show a school that having your name associated with their department is going to benefit them. A personalized letter shows that you are the type of person who will put care an effort into your career, which makes it more likely you are going to do well as a student and look good as an alumni.

I can't really say much about the employer recommendation, but I will second the comment that hyperbole is important. My academic references have always appreciated the "talking points" type information. I think it's appropriate to ask a reference if he/she would find such information useful and then provide it if they say yes.
posted by carmen at 7:48 PM on April 18, 2005

I always tell my students to give me a draft of the letter they want me to write. It's often helpful, and always entertaining. So you could have a list of points, or a draft letter, ready to give to your boss in case she asks for guidance.
posted by Wet Spot at 8:22 PM on April 18, 2005

I haven't been on an academic admissions committee, but having recently served on an academic *hiring* committee, I found that tailored letters were absolutely essential (I really can not emphasize that enough.

As another data point, I've been on academic hiring committees at least six times, and we didn't give a damn about it ever. It never came up, even once, and I assure you that everyone we interviewed and hired had at least some xeroxed "Dear members of the search committee..." letters, or just emailed PDFs.

Is this for undergraduate admissions?

There's no reason not to ask your boss if she's willing to personalize them; it can't possibly hurt. But I wouldn't beat my breast or tear my shirt if she'll only gin up one letter to include to everyone.

I don't sit on admissions committees, but if you're applying to selective schools, I'd hazard a guess that specificity and credibility are more important that flat hyperbole. I'd encourage your boss to go ahead and praise you to the sun and moon, sure, but then back it up with specific, concrete reasons or examples (that you might prompt her with).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:49 PM on April 18, 2005

Gak... reading ROU's comment, I realized that I misinterpreted your question. For some reason I thought you were asking about your letter and recommendation letters. I meant your letter should be personalized to the department, not the recommendation letter. Sorry!
posted by carmen at 7:42 AM on April 19, 2005

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