Write your own letter of recommendation [FREE TEMPLATE]

12 min read

You have been doing a literature review and have identified some key research questions you wish to address. So, you now want to find a potential supervisor to whom you can submit a research proposal for potentially conducting the research with them. The thing is, when you start applying, there would be numerous application documents like degree certificates, transcripts, some essays like Statement of Purpose (SOPs), some test scores like GRE, SAT etc. but there is one other crucial document- the letter of recommendation.

A Letter of Recommendation or LOR for short, is quite common in academia especially when you are applying for a new degree or a position. One might believe that a recommendation comes directly from a referee but actually, your referee can ask you to prepare a draft of the letter of recommendation yourself. So, you have to write your own letter of recommendation? This might come as a surprise to you if you are still nascent to the field and there might be a lot of questions as to why this happens or is this even right. So, let us look closely into what the purpose of a letter of a recommendation is and how you can write one for yourself.

What is a letter of recommendation?

As the name suggests, a Letter of Recommendation (LOR) is a document outlining the core strengths and achievements of the applicant which makes them suited for the position they are applying for. It is usually a free form letter and is written by a person in authority known as a referee or sometimes simply as recommender.

Who can write a letter of recommendation?

Technically, anyone who has worked with you closely in a professional capacity and is an authority in the field can write an LOR to support your application. Sometimes, applicants like to mix things up by seeking LORs from their mentors from Industry if they did an internship or previous jobs with them. This together with a letter of recommendation from your most recent employer- preferably your recent  direct supervisor is what is expected in support of your application.

How do you ask for a letter of recommendation?

This is by far the task that early stage researchers tend to overthink, a lot sometimes. Rightly so, because to some extent, their next application hinges on getting stellar letters of recommendations from strong referees instilling confidence in their future employer. So, the applicants get into the cycle of writing drafts after drafts for a potential email they could send to their referee to ask for a letter of recommendation. Here is an easy to use sample email body:


Dear [JOB TITLE OF REFEREE + NAME],

I am writing this email to request for a Letter of Recommendation (LOR) in support of my application for [POSITION TITLE] at [NAME OF SCHOOL + LOCATION].

Ideally, I would like to [YOUR ROLE] starting from [START/ INTAKE DATE]. As my application is due by [DUE DATE], it would help if you could provide an LOR on or before [DEADLINE].

[ADD ANY APPLICATION SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS]

Regards,

[YOUR NAME]

And just like that, you have submitted your request for a letter of recommendation to your ideal referee. 

How to write your own letter of recommendation?

So, by now you might be wondering all is set and you are going to get the LORs sorted with the email template above. Remember that this email template is just to request for an LOR but the battle is yet to be won. Ideally, the chances of your referees saying NO to your request are slim but in some special circumstances, this might be the case so be patient until you hear back from the referees you reached out to. This is why your outreach process should target multiple referees (something like 3-5) to have backups in place in case some of your referees are not available to provide an LOR by the deadline.

Now, let us only focus on the referees that have actually agreed to provide an LOR for you by the deadline you mentioned. But this can turn out in one of two ways:

  • Option-1 (Direct YES): In this case, your referee likely knows you through and through to write a detailed and strong LOR for you on their own and will do the needful to have it sent in support of your application as per instructions.

  • Option-2 (Write your own): More often than not, you might be asked to write your own letter of recommendation. Now, this can happen for multiple reasons like- your referee is swamped with other commitments but still wants to help so this way could save some time for you both. Or, you referee wants to make sure that your inputs are considered while drafting the Letter of Recommendation among other things. Either way, let us dive deeper into this case

Typically, when you are asked to write your own letter of recommendation, things get a bit tricky. The thing is, you cannot sound boastful but you still want to bring forth your strengths and achievements. Writing the letter yourself can feel daunting because the line between just enough vs boastful can get blurry at times. What helps to know is that your referee is going to take this as an input and modify it to their liking so there is scope of improvement but you need to give them actionable inputs to build on. So, here is a template and the process I would use if I were to write my own letter of recommendation.

  • Step-1 (Pull up the job advertisement):  Whichever position you are applying for, would likely have been e-advertised. So, pull up the advertisement again and make notes about the ideal profile requirements the recruiter is expecting from the candidate.

  • Step-2 (Tabularize and match your skills):  Make a tabularized list where on one side you have the ideal candidate profile and then on the other side you have your own to try and see how many criteria you meet right away.

  • Step-3 (Justify gaps):  It is unlikely that would be a 100% match for the ideal candidate profile, meaning there would some gaps you would need to fill and justify why you should be given a chance. From the table you made in the Step-2 above, you would likely spot some gaps (empty rows). For such items, think of your soft skills, past achievements, anything that helps you show potential transferable knowledge or similar as a strong justification or an alternative skill set you bring to the table, if given a chance.

  • Step-4 (Note down referee relations): By this I mean make a list of the referees you are finally going to grab the LOR from. Make note about how you know them, since when do you know them, and anything else you want to highlight about your relationship with the referee in the LOR.

Great, so now that we have all the background information needed to write a letter of recommendation for yourself, let us set up a document we can populate.

[NAME OF REFEREE]

[JOB TITLE OF REFEREE]

[OFFICIAL ADDRESS]

[CONTACT INFORMATION]

Dear [NAME OF FUTURE EMPLOYER, IF KNOWN][HIRING COMMITTEE][TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN],

My name is [REFEREE NAME] and I am the [RELATIONSHIP TO APPLICANT] of [APPLICANT NAME]. I have known [APPLICANT] since [YEAR] and I am writing this letter to personally recommend [HIM/HER/THEM] for the [PROSPECTIVE JOB TITLE] position at [PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYER].

[ONE PARAGRAPH DEDICATED TO EACH QUALITY TO BE HIGHLIGHTED WITH QUANTIFIABLE FACTS WHEN APPLICABLE]

I thus highly recommend [APPLICANT NAME] for the [POSITION TITLE] position confident that [APPLICANT PRONOUN] will bring the same drive and dedication with which [APPLICANT PRONOUN] has been working with me/my group.

Should there be any further queries you can direct them to me at [REFEREE’s CONTACT EMAIL].

Sincerely,

[REFEREE SIGNATURE]

[REFEREE NAME]

[REFEREE AFFILIATION]

 

And voila! now you know how to reach out to potential referees to seek a letter of recommendation and also are prepared to write a letter of recommendation (draft) for yourself if need be. Fret no more and good luck with your applications.

Things to keep in mind when writing your own letter of recommendation

Now that you have a template above, there are some crucial points you must keep in mind when you get down to using it to write your own letter of recommendation.

  • Is it even ethical to write your own letter of recommendation? Well, writing your own letter of recommendation can be briefly called as ghost writing. Here, the objective is to give inputs to your referee(s) to help them formulate a strong letter of recommendation and we’ve already discussed why you might be asked to write one for yourself. As far as the ethical considerations go, it is unethical if you are writing a letter of recommendation for yourself and sending it under your referee’s credentials without their knowledge. Always have your referee send the final letter of recommendation once it is ready as per the application instructions.

  • What if you are not comfortable writing your own letter of recommendation? Writing your LOR can get overwhelming and feel daunting and this is normal. There is a lot at stake here and you suddenly start to feel your fate hinges by the quality of the LOR you can curate for yourself. Being your own devil’s advocate is hard and I get that. So, know this, you have a choice-

    • Refuse: You can politely decline to write your own LOR if you aren’t comfortable writing one. In this case, you could try reach out to some other referees if the said referee isn’t a part of the mandatory referees such as your most recent employer

    • Refuse with alternative: If a straight up refusal feels harsh, you could offer up an alternative. For instance, you could have a sit down with the referee bring in your resume and have a discussion about the aspects you want to highlight. This should give them enough inputs to write the LOR.

    • Partial LOR draft: If full-on refusal and a sit-down don’t seem feasible, here is yet another alternative- Use the LOR template to prepare an outline instead of the full letter and add bullets or keywords as inputs for your referee to build on.

  • How much is too much? One of the biggest writer’s block when it comes to writing your own LORs is not being able to clearly define how much is too much you can say about yourself. While there is no golden rule for this, here is what helps me:

    • Remember the letter is ideally a one pager so there is no need to ramble

    • Whatever you cannot back up with facts doesn’t belong in the letter. It’s not just about praises, it is about building confidence about you as an applicant and a potential new recruit.

    • Whatever characteristic you want to highlight for a particular position, put yourself in the position of the recruiter and ask yourself- if I were interviewing a candidate with such a characteristic for the said position, how would it make me feel as a recruiter? If the answer is positive, discuss that with facts otherwise drop it.

  • Can you copy-paste a template off of Internet? ABSOLUTELY NO!! Remember that your hiring committee has years of experience screening candidates and reading through such documents. Your LOR is a golden opportunity for you to show that hiring you will be worth the time and money. Your committee has probably seen those letters on the internet and can sense a plagiarized letter easily. So, even if you use the template above, this is why I left placeholders for you to customize it to your situation and not clone it without a thought. 

Key takeaways

Once you have shortlisted a few potential venues for the next step in your career, you can begin applying to them with all the rigor. However, note that an integral part of your application package be it academia or industry, will be the letter of recommendation.

If you already have a Ph.D., then you would be expected to provide at least two letters, one from your Ph.D. supervisor and one from your current employer so always try and get pre-approvals for 3-5 letter writers for when the time comes. Also note that some referees might have limitations such as the number of letters they are able to provide etc. So, be sure to clearly understand if their approval is conditional or does it have some limitations so you can prepare accordingly.

One last thing, don’t try to reach out to someone just because of their job title. You would be better off with a letter of recommendation who knows you thoroughly and can bring out your strengths clearly as opposed to someone who has administrative power owing to their job title. Having said this, good luck with your applications and your journey ahead.