How to write your own letter of recommendation?
February 22, 2012 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any tips for drafting your own letter of recommendation?

I'm shocked that I couldn't find this question in the archives, but maybe I didn't look in the right way... I'm a recent PhD and I need a letter of recommendation from my advisor. He's written me plenty of letters before, but this one is for something that's a bit off the beaten path and he's asked me to write my own for him to sign. I know writing your own letter is pretty normal, so I'm not uncomfortable about doing it. I just don't know what to write! So, any tips? do's and don't's?
posted by juliapangolin to Education (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
"He's written me plenty of letters before"

If you haven't already, ask to see one of those. Tailor it to your "off the beaten path" letter and go from there.
posted by apip at 8:40 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I know people sometimes write their own letters, but I think it's a terrible practice and puts you in a shitty position. I also don't think it's that common, at least not in my field or in my department. Part of your advisor's job is to write letters for you. To answer your question - yes, take a look at one of the letters he has already written for you and perhaps you can pull from that to get started. Avoid using a template or form approach to writing the letter - just imagine, if you will, that you were your advisor and trying to cast you in the best possible light. Be specific about what makes you distinct and exemplary (I would back up every claim you make with specific evidence), and, if it's for something 'off the beaten path' then I'd be sure to speak directly to the thing you are applying to as much as possible.
posted by drobot at 9:52 PM on February 22, 2012

It is not normal to write your own letters of recommendation, and this is very lazy on the part of your advisor. What would be reasonable would be to provide him with a) a document that has details about the position you are applying for, plus information about what qualities/experiences of yours the letter should address, and b) the other application materials you are submitting.
posted by ktkt at 11:19 PM on February 22, 2012

It's not lazy, it's effective delegation, as in fact OP is now doing herself. Your supervisor likes you and wants you to have the best chances, so why not combine his clout with your knowledge of the things you want your assessors to know? I presume he will vet it for outright lies.

Anyway, write down your unique strengths and the things you have done that you're most proud of, and highlight some things your supervisor knows about that would help you in your new situation. Then construct a sentence along the lines of "...I would in no way hesitate to recommend juliapangolin overall, and think that you would find her particularly strong/capable in (new role) due to x, which she has shown many times during her research with me."
posted by cogat at 12:56 AM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

And when you send it, give your supervisor explicit permission to take out or modify anything he wishes, whether or not he agrees with it. Saves discomfort.
posted by cogat at 1:00 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my field, it is totally normal for the person needing a letter of recommendation to write a draft for the person actually submitting the letter. I'm a postdoc and I usually need 3 or 4 of these a year for various fellowship and travel grant applications, and there are probably at least 10 of me for every senior person asked to write the letters. It just isn't reasonable to expect a head of the department to write 50 odd letters of recommendations a year from scratch- they're willing, they just don't have the time, so an applicant composing a draft they can use as a template is a huge help.

As for tips- yes, it feels goofy, but don't be shy... be very complimentary of yourself (you don't want to inadvertently damn yourself with faint praise by sounding lukewarm). Give specific examples: X is an innovative thinker with strong leadership qualities, exemplified by her work in implementing a new project investigating the blah blah blah. As part of this project, she established a new collaboration with researchers at the Institute of Awesomeness. She is an excellent communicator and has presented at international conferences including the 2010 Conference of Awesome in Barcelona, Spain.

If you have any publications from your PhD work, mention them in the letter. It feels super awkward to write a letter for yourself, but just bite the bullet and write a good one. Best of luck!
posted by emd3737 at 1:40 AM on February 23, 2012


It's not common in my (previous) field - it either meant the professor was too busy but didn't want to say no, or wasn't enthusiastic about you but didn't want to say no. Mileage varies on whether it's a good or bad thing, I guess, to write your own letter. It's a good thing to know how to do and it works for you, but it's a bad thing if it backfires or suggests something about you unintentionally.

Things you probably want to look out for are not mirroring language from your own Statement of Purpose or submitted writing. Make sure someone else proofreads it, before it gets signed. Be wary of over-selling yourself. Ask him to review it before he signs it.

IMO it's better to do this as a collaborative effort, he gives you a template, you give him a draft, he brings it together in his own "voice". Some schools look pretty dimly on self-written letters because they don't know what it means about the candidate that they had to write their own letter (unless they are familiar with the recommender, etc) and we (hiring and admissions committees) could usually tell which ones were written solely by the student; in the absence of corroborating evidence we threw those out for various reasons, which included the letter actually not being particularly good.
posted by sm1tten at 7:14 AM on February 23, 2012

Best answer: I had to write my own letter of recommendation last year and my father (a professor) gave me some advice about how and what to write that I found really helpful.

First, the letter should be easy to read, so keep the paragraphs short and don't go over 2 pages. The letter should start with how well your advisor knows you, so things like when you first met, how many years you worked together, how often he sees you, what your responsibilities are and what your relationship is like. An easy first sentence is "I am pleased to recommend juliapangolin for...." Make sure to talk about your strengths and how your advisor has seen your skills progress over time. Be sure to describe your role and accomplishments while working together, your educational and professional background, as well as your personal demeanor and professionalism. Be specific when you describe your accomplishments (publications, conference presentations, etc.). This is a good way to add substance to the letter.

To strengthen the letter, you can throw in an anecdote about your relationship (something lighthearted that also demonstrates a skill or quality you possess) or talk about a time when you went above and beyond. It's also good to mention anything that sets you apart from your peers.

I was applying to grad school, so this might not be as helpful, but I included a line about how I compared favorably to previous employees/students who have gone on to programs (or in your case, positions) at highly regarded schools such as [insert awesome schools here]. My general attitude was that if he was going to make me write my own letter, I was going to make damn sure it was glowing, so don't be modest.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 8:34 AM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I got a lot of good advice in this AskMe thread: Self-promotion for the self-conscious.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:47 AM on February 23, 2012

I typically have a close close friend (in my case girlfriend) or family member write it for me. If you know anyone who is smart and a strong writer than you trust and are close with why not have them write it?
posted by jjmoney at 10:20 AM on February 23, 2012

Search for letter of recommendation example (or sample). That will help you find phrases and sentences to use. Mrs. Spiffy has it right: Start with "I strongly/whole-heartedly/enthusiastically" recommend X for Y. X entered the Z program here at U of Q in 2008. I became X's advisor in 2009, and have supervised all X's papers/research/awesome parties since that time. As you may know the U of Q navel-gazing program is on the Wavy Gravy Top 10 Groovy Programs, and is accredited by Marvel Comix. "

"I have observed that X is ridiculously brilliant at navel-gazing/prepares slides with ease/ is able to spell a reasonable number of words in English. X has demonstrated exceptional expertise in glitter-gluing and spin art."

Build in any awards, descriptions of projects, skills, publications, etc. and a description of any specific areas of accomplishment you want to highlight. Examples are helpful. A personal comment can be good "X is also an accomplished triangle player, and the Beatles Cover band will miss her."

I'd give the letter as a Word or shared Google doc, so the prof. can edit easily. Recommendations are time-consuming, but important; make it really easy for the prof to give a good rec.
posted by theora55 at 5:49 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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