January-February 2007 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Acquiring Strong Letters of Recommendation
Homeschoolers applying for jobs, internships and other programs, and college admission need to create effective credentials. Strong letters of recommendation are one of the best possibilities. They represent third party verification (from outside your family) to back up what you are saying on your application or resume. Homeschoolers who are taking charge of their educations (and their lives) often find such letters especially useful. Homeschoolers have the initiative and the flexibility to meet a wide variety of people and participate in various projects which provide good material for letters of recommendation. In addition, homeschoolers have experience "thinking outside the box," so they can use some of the somewhat unconventional ideas below.
This column explores ways of getting strong letters of recommendations. It is intended for both parents and young people and is addressed to young people since they are the ones doing the work and gathering the letters.
The Power of Letters of Recommendation
A personal letter describing your strengths, abilities, and experience can be more powerful than formal credentials like degrees and certificates. Such a letter presents specific information about you to people who need or are seeking such information. At first you may feel a little awkward asking people to write letters for you that describe how impressive and capable you are, but don't let that stop you. Letters of recommendation are invaluable, and the process of requesting them gets easier with experience.
Focus on What Employers, College Admissions Officers, and Others Are Seeking
The more clearly a letter of recommendation demonstrates that you have the qualities, abilities, skills, and experience that the reader is looking for, the more effective it will be and the more likely you will be to reach your goals. But how do you know what people will be looking for? Most employers, college admissions officers, and other application reviewers are looking for the same general qualities. Having a list of these qualities will help you get letters that focus on them. A letter doesn't have to include them all, but it works well to have sentences like "Sarah takes responsibility for assignments, can be counted on to get them done, and solves problems that arise in the process. When the tornado took out our electricity for two days in the summer of 2006, she devised a system for keeping track of books people checked out until the computer was up and running again."
It's best if you write your own list of the qualities you most want to demonstrate to others that you possess. But here's one possible list you could use as a starting place.
• Oral and written communication skills. The ability to communicate clearly and directly both orally and in writing is among the most basic skills required, but it's amazing how many people are lacking in this area. So even if it seems obvious to you, make sure people know how effectively you can communicate. Be specific; if you have experience with phone work, email, public speaking, or other forms of communication, mention them.
• Interpersonal skills: Homeschoolers often excel in this area, partly because they have opportunities to interact with a variety of people of different ages.
• Team work: Have you had experience working as a member of a team, either as a leader or as a follower or perhaps as both? Employers and others value experience with the coordination and cooperation that team work requires.
• Problem-solving skills: Here's one of the most important. Some people just stop and give up or blame someone else when something goes wrong or a project gets stuck. More capable people figure out what happened and fix it, even if it was someone else's fault or oversight. Even more valuable is the ability to anticipate possible problems and act in ways that prevent them. Try to develop that skill and let others know you have it.
• Ability to take responsibility: This is closely related to problem-solving skills. Are you a person who can be assigned a job and counted on to get it done?
• Ability to deal with ambiguity and change.
• Confidence: According to Henry Ford, "Whether you think you can or whether you think you're can't, you're right." Take stock of everything you know and can do, and make sure you don't sell yourself short.
Ask for Letters at a Good Time
There are several key points to requesting letters at a good time. Among them:
• Start at a young age. Refer to your list of key qualities. When you have demonstrated to someone that you have some of those qualities, ask them to write a letter of recommendation for you. This happens at a much younger age than most people expect, especially among homeschoolers.
Consider, for example, a 13 year old who has been babysitting relatively frequently for a family. Successful babysitting requires tremendous interpersonal and communication skills. Sitters communicate with the parents, including finding out what the parents want and what the rules are and reporting on what happens. Sitters also communicate with the kids, inspiring cooperation and resolving disputes. They deal with ambiguity and change, including handling questions about discipline, food, bedtime, and use of the TV and computer. Time management includes staying on a prescribed schedule and getting the kids fed and into bed. Problem solving skills are required to manage different kids with different needs.
It's a good idea to begin collecting letters of recommendation as soon as you can. These letters are valuable credentials and help you get into a pattern of requesting and receiving such letters.
• Choose a good time in your relationship with the potential letter writer. The customary practice of requesting a letter of recommendation when a relationship is ending or after it has ended often does not work well. Writers have less incentive to write, especially if they no longer see you frequently rely on your work. And if a relationship runs into difficulties, it may not be practical to ask for a letter.
To avoid such problems, ask for a letter as soon as a potential writer knows you well enough to write and you have demonstrated your skills and abilities. A rule of thumb for someone you see several times a week is to ask for a letter after about six months. If the writer could write an even stronger letter of recommendation at some point in the future, perhaps because your relationship grows or the work you are doing gets more challenging, you can ask for an updated letter.
Don't wait until you need letters of recommendation to start requesting them. You are better prepared to go looking for new opportunities if you have some strong letters of recommendation in your file to pull out at a moment's notice. Such letters can simply be addressed "To Whom It May Concern:"
• Letters of recommendation can be an effective way to support conventional credentials and make them more personal and specific. For example, if you take a community college course, you can ask the instructor to write a personal letter of recommendation at the end of the course.
Generating Strong Letters of Recommendation
• Make it easy for the writer. People are busy, and a standardized form requesting a recommendation can get buried in the To Do pile of people with the best of intentions. Also, some people, especially those who don't write on a regular basis or who haven't had much experience with letters of recommendation, are intimidated by a blank sheet of paper or computer screen. In addition, you have a clearer idea than the writer of why you need a letter of recommendation and what would be most appropriate.
Give the writer a rough draft of the kind of letter you would like. Say something like, "To save you time, I've drafted an example of the kind of letter that would be helpful to me. Feel free to ignore it if you're rather compose your own letter or to change it in anyway you want to." If you present the draft diplomatically, they are unlikely to take offense. In fact, most people will appreciate your efforts.
However, if you decide it would be best not to give someone a draft, you can still give them a list of your goals, information about the job you want or the school you are applying to, etc. This kind of information will make it easier for them to write a letter that is targeted to your goals and that supports your efforts.
If you are drafting several letters that will be part of the same application, be sure to make them all noticeably different. This should not be difficult, and might even happen automatically, since writers will know you in different ways and will have had different experiences with you. (By the way, when you need several recommendations for one application, it often strengthens your application to choose people with differing backgrounds. It's better to have one person from the store where you work, one family friend, and one 4-H leader than to have all three from the same place.)
In addition to a draft letter or notes and ideas, give the writer a stamped envelope either addressed to you or to the institution to whom the letter should be sent.
If you're drafting a letter, begin by having the person identify themselves and indicate how long they've known you and in what capacity. Since the point of a letter of recommendation is to provide third party verification of your skills and abilities, it is important that the writer be recognized as someone who is qualified to evaluate you. The person does not need to be a well-known bigwig; anyone is qualified to write a letter. If you are requesting a letter of recommendation from someone for whom you baby-sit, their qualification is being the parent of the children you care for. That's enough. They don't need to also mention that they have won the Nobel prize in physics.
Make information specific. Rather than "Mary has been mowing our lawn for a while," write something like, "Mary has been mowing the grass and edging the sidewalks on our one acre lot every week since mid-April, 2006."
Drafting a letter of recommendation gives you a good opportunity to decide which skills you want to highlight for each letter of recommendation. Don't write something like "Katie has baby-sat for our children for two years and she's done a good job." Instead, describe the specific skill or ability you are focusing on and then give examples of the ways in which you have demonstrated that you have the skill. Be as specific as possible; details make the statements more credible. Use powerful nouns and verbs. (To get yourself thinking in terms of powerful words, do an Internet search for something like: powerful words list resume. This will lead you to a number of lists. Look at them until you find one or more that appeal to you and keep them handy.)
One helpful way to approach letters of recommendation is to ask yourself, "What did I find? What did I do? What were the results?" Include the answers to these questions in your draft. A simple example would be for someone to write: "Before we hired John as our gardening intern in April, 2006, the 8' by 12' flower bed in back of the house was a tangle of overgrown perennials and weeds. John removed all the weeds. He and I decided which perennials to keep and which to remove, and he did the removal work. Then he selected a colorful group of annuals, planted them in the bare spots, watered them well, and put on the pine bark mulch I had chosen. By July, we had a lovely, colorful garden instead of a mess." Include specific ways in which what you have done has helped the writer. "Now our meals on the screened porch are more enjoyable as we look out at the flowers."
The elements and appearance of the letter are important. If the writer is associated with an institution, such as a school, church, library, etc., tactfully ask if they can put the letter on their official letterhead. Otherwise, a plain piece of paper is fine. Make sure the letter has a date and an original signature. If the best you can do it get someone to email you a letter of recommendation, it's better than nothing and worth having, but it will not be as impressive as an official letter that is printed, signed, and dated.
A final reminder: Once you're gotten a strong letter of recommendation, make several copies and store them and the original is a file folder where they will stay in good shape and you'll be able to find them easily when you need them.
Letters of recommendation can strengthen your credentials and applications for jobs, internships, college, etc., especially if you choose appropriate times to request them and help the writer focus the letter on your goals and special interests and the qualities that are most appropriate for the application at hand. Such letters are especially important for homeschoolers who may not have conventional credentials. Homeschoolers also have greater opportunities to work with people on projects that can result in impressive letters of recommendation and have enough experience thinking "outside the box" to use creative ideas to get strong letters of recommendation.
© 2007, Larry and Susan Kaseman