In August, when I left my three-year summer job at Subway Restaurants, I asked my boss for a recommendation letter. With three young kids, a loud wife and disgruntled employees to handle, he told me to write it myself. “Just give it to me and I’ll sign it,” he said.
At first, I thought, “No way am I writing my own recommendation letter.” There has to be something ethically wrong with that, right? Wrong. If you need a recommendation letter, and if your boss requests that you write it yourself, then that’s what you should do. Let me repeat: only if your employer asks you to should you write your own recommendation letter.
I stuck it out and wrote it. The process was challenging but rewarding, even somewhat fun. Here are a few tips I wish I knew when I wrote mine.
Create a heading that looks professional.
All recommendation letters should have a heading that looks professional, even if they come from a high school English teacher. (If that’s the case, use the school’s address and phone number for the heading). Without that heading, the letter looks like it wasn’t crafted by someone professional; woops, your future employer knows that you wrote your own letter! The heading is a sneaky way to hide your identity and voice. For my letter, I wrote my boss’s name, his title, the name of the company, the complete address and the phone number. I then followed with, “To whom it may concern,” because I knew I might re-use this letter for different occasions.
Try to write in a different style.
This is hard for people who have developed voices, and it was hard for me, too. I’m used to writing in AP style, omitting Oxford commas and abbreviating street names. If you, like me, are in the writing industry, don’t use the same style you would normally. Experiment. Make a few (not too noticeable) mistakes here and there. You’re human; presumably, your employer is, too.
Talk about your strengths — not your weaknesses.
When I first wrote my letter, I expanded on a number of my strengths. I was a great multi-tasker, I could handle more than one sandwich at once, I always smiled at customers and welcomed them to the restaurant. Striving for balance, I cringed as I included some unflattering comments. I wasn’t the best cleaner. Sometimes, I left the bain messy or neglected to sweep the back room. The paragraph didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the letter. When my mom read it later, she told me to take it out. If you’re writing your own letter, take advantage of it: use the space to enumerate your strengths, but omit your weaknesses. If your employer wanted to include your weaknesses, he would have written it himself. Be honest and specific about your duties and what your employer thinks you have learned.
Keep the letter short
Your future employer doesn’t want to read through a five-paragraph essay about your achievements, and the longer it is, the more it may seem like your writing. Keep it short and sweet, and leave your employer wanting to hear more. He may call your previous employer, and then he’ll get the candid responses he needs. My recommendation letter was exactly one page, and that’s with the header and space for the signature.
Have someone else revise it.
This is probably the most important. It’s not always easy to write in another style. Ideally, you should have someone unbiased revise the piece. Maybe someone you work with would be willing to sit down with you and read it through. But if you’re just looking for someone to edit it, then go ahead and let your mom do it. As mentioned before, my mom gave me lots of feedback. She also edited a few sentences into new sentence structures that sounded foreign from my writing.
Finally, your letter is done. Sometimes, your employer will read it, edit it and give it back to you to change. That didn’t happen for me; my boss knew I was an English major and signed the document right away. He thanked me after for saving him the time. Still feeling anxious, I left the restaurant where I had spent three summers. I read over the letter once more after he signed it, imagining that my boss wrote it. It wasn’t until I presented the letter to a new employer that I felt confident in its quality.
It’s important to remember that writing your own recommendation letter isn’t deception; if your employer signs it, then he may as well have wrote it. However, never ask to write your own letter. If your boss has the time, he or she should write a recommendation letter for you.
But sometimes that’s not the case. If and when that happens, and you’re sitting at your computer, blinking at your word processor, remember these key hints.
How would you write your own recommendation letter? What would you include, and what wouldn’t you include? Comment below!