Skeleton Writing - Recommendation Letters
Every few weeks, a colleague will send me a heart-felt email, tweet or Facebook message. The message, simple and evocative, goes like this:
I'm desperately unhappy in my current position. Would you write me a letter of recommendation?I empathize with this type of request. As a writer, crafting a letter of recommendation that speaks powerfully to an individual's strengths can serve as a source of creative rejuvenation. When that letter helps a prospective employer make a life-altering decision, both my colleague and I acknowledge that contribution.
If you've had to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague, then you know the challenges involved. It must be articulate, quickly unearth the treasure that the prospective employer can seize and spend to the benefit of the organization, as well as provide subtle direction on the best uses of a person's skills. Writing such a letter can be difficult.
In this blog entry, you'll find a simple formula I follow. I came upon it after writing letters for friends and colleagues, not to mention the occasional, "Will you write yourself a letter of recommendation so that I have something to start with?" (which irked me at the start of my career but now makes me chuckle, much the same way I'd ask a mechanic how to go about improving the rough sound my truck's motor makes).
My basic formula, or skeleton frame, tries to be as simple to follow as possible. It looks like this:
#1 Highlight Top 3 Qualities of the Candidate
Paragraph 1 - Offer thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts about the candidate (whose name I place) and their qualifications for the position. Here's how it plays out over several actual letters of recommendation, real names of persons and organizations replaced to protect the innocent...you may notice the beginning of the pattern, the focus on the qualities that will be elaborated on in the letter of recommendation:
- It is my pleasure to recommend [PERSON'S NAME] for the [name of position] position she has applied for. As a Texas technology director active in state and national organizations, I have had the opportunity to meet many outstanding educational technologists. Time and again, [PERSON'S NAME] stands head-n-shoulders above the rest.[PERSON'S NAME] ’s incisive leadership, vision for the future, and extraordinary managerial and organizational skills have been of great benefit to the districts she has served.
- Thank you for taking the time to review this letter of recommendation for job candidate, [PERSON'S NAME] . As her supervisor in the [ORGANIZATION NAME], I have had the opportunity to witness [PERSON'S NAME] 's performance, character and creativity first-hand. Please allow me a few moments to elaborate with three specific examples that illustrate her qualities. Should you need me to elaborate on any of these, or others, please do not hesitate to contact me by phone or email at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
- Thank you for your inquiry regarding [PERSON'S NAME], candidate for the position of Director of Technology for [ORGANIZATION NAME]. Over the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity to observe [PERSON'S NAME] in a variety of roles. In each, he has consistently demonstrated enthusiasm, expertise, loyalty, and commitment to the mission of the organization, as well as, to those he serves. While each of these could be enumerated at greater length, I hope you will allow me to provide brief examples of each.
As you can see from the brief examples above, it's important to quickly lay out the qualities that one will elaborate on in the rest of the letter. Once you have selected the 3 qualities--and the stories that illustrate each--you are set to go!
#2 Give 'em the story-rich details.
Paragraph 2 - 4 : These paragraphs usually involve more detail about a particular quality. I like to keep the paragraphs as to the point as possible, but I confess to a certain desire to flowery language in each. The examples shown below all come from letters that helped candidates get interviewed, and, I hope, hired.
- Quality: Enthusiasm. [PERSON'S NAME]'s enthusiasm is legendary, and when you hire him, you hire an individual who will give his all to accomplish the mission. His work in [ORGANIZATION NAME], his efforts on behalf of the PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION over the years prove his enthusiasm. Would that I had several of [PERSON'S NAME] to liberally sprinkle through my campuses and district offices. If his enthusiasm were the sole benefit, you could hire him and be content in your decision. [PERSON'S NAME]'s efforts, however, bespeak of a principled life that inspire others around him. As Gandhi shared, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” [PERSON'S NAME] embodies the truth of that advice in the service of our children, staff, and community without reservation.
- Quality: Commitment to High Performance. When [PERSON'S NAME] joined the[ORGANIZATION NAME], we were woefully understaffed and several projects had fallen behind after several months. A testament to her commitment to high quality performance, she immediately took upon herself responsibility for ensuring the projects were brought up to date. This was particularly true with her work with the [NAME OF PROGRAM], a district initiative. [PERSON'S NAME] was quick to apply her experience and instructional facilitator to enhance communications, creating print and online newsletters that involved blending in video. She took it upon herself to make extensive revisions to the web site, creating an interactive, professional learning center online using course management system (e.g. Moodle). This involved long hours on her part, all of which [PERSON'S NAME] took upon herself without reservation. Her performance in this area was without peer and helped the [ORGANIZATION NAME] achieve critical deadlines.
- Quality: Vision. ...I also had the opportunity to co-facilitate sessions with [PERSON'S NAME], listening to her detail what her vision of what technology-enhanced teaching and learning environments could be for districts and campuses.Teachers flocked to [PERSON'S NAME]’s vision because it did not diminish their role, but rather, made them essential. [PERSON'S NAME]’s approach to teaching, learning and leadership empowers teachers and administrators to be leaders in educational technology, powering engines of ingenuity and innovation in schools. As my co-learner in several conference sessions, I have found [PERSON'S NAME] to be erudite, reflective and unafraid in scaffolding growth.
- Qualities: High performing team player, creativity, and self-starter. As a high-performing, team player, [PERSON'S NAME] also had ample opportunity to demonstrate her creativity. Each of the team members had a specific talent, however, [PERSON'S NAME]'s creative approach to project management enhanced the work of others she partnered with. Her attention to detail, her connections with others outside of the District enabled her to creatively frame problems and solve them. For example, she identified a clear need for Interactive WhiteBoard (IWB) training for schools. To meet the need of other teachers, she developed a data-gathering instrument, collected data from district stakeholders, created a proposal, and planned professional learning opportunities. She also became SMARTboard certified, although she is also adept at other IWBs (e.g. Promethean ActivBoard and Polyvision).
There are various ways to transition from one paragraph to another. I encourage you to keep it simple. I regret I can't provide a complete letter of recommendation here for review, only allowing you to see excerpts from several. Still, remember to illustrate with a real story one of the qualities you introduced in your initial paragraph.
#3 Point out what the organization will lose without this person.
Final paragraph - In this final paragraph, you want to bring it all home again.
- [PERSON'S NAME]’s grounded vision, incisive leadership, ability to engage others with an infectious, inclusive enthusiasm will serve [ORGANIZATION NAME] well. Her ability to coach others, manage various programs, overcome technical challenges that manifest in the course of implementing free, open source solutions in K-12 and adult learning environments...these are the attributes that [PERSON'S NAME] can bring to your organization. As you consider other applicants, ask yourself what your commitment is to the dream, then, hire [PERSON'S NAME] for the job before you waste any more money, and you will find out what lies at the other end of the techni-color rainbow.
- [PERSON'S NAME] is a rising star and any organization would be foolish to pass her over during an interview or selection process. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
- Though these few words can do little to describe [PERSON'S NAME] 's potential contribution to your organization, you might measure your gain by the canyon deep gap her departure to your organization means to the [YOUR ORGANIZATION].
- [PERSON'S NAME]’s leadership in those early years in [ORGANIZATION #1], his empowerment of teachers and administrators during his time at [ORGANIZATION #2], [ORGANIZATION #3], and, most importantly, [YOUR ORGANIZATION], his management of a variety of complex programs, his ability to coach others and enable them to achieve more than they ever dreamed. . .these are the attributes that [PERSON'S NAME] can bring to your organization.
And, that's pretty much it. I can honestly say that the excerpts above come from letters of recommendation for candidates who were hired at campus, district level leadership positions. Was it my writing that did the trick? Probably not but the letters may have helped get that candidate in the door for an interview.
I hope sharing this "skeleton" of how to approach a letter of recommendation is helpful to others who may find themselves in a similar position as me. Perhaps, it will encourage others more adept at writing these letters than I to share their distinctive approach so that all of us may benefit.
For those looking for more advice, you might read this blog entry at Conversation Agent.
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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure