Letters of Recommendation

Have you ever been asked to write a letter of recommendation? One of my favorite tasks is to write such a letter for someone who I believe is totally worthy of the honor for which he/she is being considered, or completely suited to the position or new career for which they are headed. Conversely, one of my least favorite tasks is to write such a letter for someone I’m unconvinced fits either of those categories.

Writing a letter of recommendation for someone you know well and believe in is a joy. It’s easy to write, easy to find examples, easy to express concepts. It almost writes itself. Writing a letter for someone you don’t know well, or aren’t sure fits the reason for the recommendation, can be a painful, tedious project.

A colleague once told me that if I can’t write a glowing recommendation for someone, I should decline to write one at all. That’s good advice because the recipient of the letter can often tell when you’re enthusiastic, and when you’re not. I have also received letters of recommendation for applicants from people who actually write a bad recommendation – why not to hire the person or admit him/her to the program. I’m appalled that people would agree to write a letter if they are going to write a bad recommendation. Yes, it is hard to say no to someone who comes asking, but it is far better to say no than to write a bad letter of recommendation.

Occasionally you may not have any options, and may need to write a letter of recommendation. For example a person may need a letter from their boss and have only worked in the job they currently have. Or they need a letter from their most recent instructor, and that’s you! These are especially hard to write because you may feel obligated to write a reference, but not have enough personal experience with the person to write a glowing one. In these cases, all you can do is write about as many positive aspects of the person as you are aware of and leave it at that. Sometimes I have talked to the person’s immediate supervisor or work colleagues to gain some insight before writing the letter.

I have declined to write a letter of recommendation on occasion. In general, I decline because I have not had enough direct contact with the individual asking me to provide them with a good recommendation. Once in a while I decline because I truly can’t recommend the person.

From the opposite perspective, when asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, always ask for a GOOD recommendation. Also, try to always ask people who know you well and know your work and work ethic well. You’ll be doing both them and yourself a favor.

-Patti Jones PhD, DABCC, FACB, is the Clinical Director of the Chemistry and Metabolic Disease Laboratories at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, TX and a Professor of Pathology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

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