How to write a Letter of Recommendation?
July 11, 2019 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good tips about how to approach writing a letter of recommendation for someone on my team, who I technically manage but isn't my direct report?

Someone on the team I manage asked me to write him a letter of recommendation for graduate school (he'd like to change from private sector to education as a teacher). I'd love to support him, but I don't have much direct experience with him. There are a few layers between him and I on the team. I've seen some examples of templates and stuff out there, but any tips or advice on how to make him look really good from the MF?
posted by mannermode to Work & Money (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
oops I didn't search hard enough, seems a great answer already out there
posted by mannermode at 8:01 PM on July 11

Thanks for doing this! There's some good advice in the link above. It probably varies a *lot* between fields, but, at least in the physical sciences, academic recommendation letters are a subtle art. Based on my experience on several grad admission committees, which is certainly not universal, I'd suggest:

1 - Address the change of career and the move from what academics insultingly call "industry" upfront. Pointing out that they are really committed to their new endeavor is worth a lot. (Admissions committees are always asking themselves, "is this person going to drop out?")

2 - Leave out any personal stuff, unless there are specific hardships the person has overcome that make their success more compelling. "She loves surfing and has a beautiful garden" will poison your letter. "She was a first-gen college student who worked a full time job while completing her degree" is great, and it's better coming from you than the candidate.

3- Start and end with a very explicit summary of your opinion, e.g., "I have no hesitation in offering the highest possible recommendation for Person."

4- Unlike some other contexts, every negative or possibly negative thing you say will be used against the candidate. Academic recommendation letters in the US are graded on a scale that bottoms out at 95%. If you aim for balance, it will be read as "warning signs." Anything negative that isn't followed by, "they've not only corrected for this initial problem, but are now a world expert in the subject" will count against them.

5 - Explicit comparisons are the gold standard. "I've worked with 30 young people at a similar stage in their career, and she's among the two best" is good. "She's as talented as Dr. Muckymuck and Mr. Thornwhistle (CFO of Company) were at the same age" is better.

6 - Ask for a CV and very briefly mention a few things in it, for consistency and credibility. (Or have a 15 minute interview with them instead.)
posted by eotvos at 8:26 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]

Great answer from eotovos, just a couple of things to add.
1. Early in the letter identify yourself (be sure to clearly convey your seniority) and explain how long you have known the applicant and in what capacity.
2. As noted above, basically anything other than glowing positive remarks will be interpreted as red flags. "Damning with faint praise" applies to recommendation letters in academia more than any other context that I'm aware of.
posted by emd3737 at 2:04 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]

Could you rank this person in the top ten percent of applicants? Five? (That might be worth saying so). I don't think it's a bad idea to ask the person to write their own letter. Sorry if this is unethical, but it's a bit of a win win if you read it and veto the parts you don't agree with.
posted by karmachameleon at 2:16 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]

When I did this as a back to graduate school applicant, I provided my industry letter writers with 2-3 areas / examples from my work for them that I wanted them to highlight.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:59 AM on July 12

Thanks, this is great advice! Long story short my boss ended up writing the LOR but I hope to be honored to be asked again someday.
posted by mannermode at 7:44 PM on August 13

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