Write better letters of recommendation

Effective letters of recommendation can help shape futures.
By Dawn Wotapka

These letters, which help students land everything from valuable scholarships to coveted internships, need to seem authentic and personalized, but that takes time, which is already in short supply for most faculty members.

But writing a good recommendation letter isn’t as complicated as you might think. Follow these guidelines to make the process as easy as possible.

Understand the purpose. Remind yourself that you’re contributing to the accounting profession. Letters of recommendation are designed to support your students’ goals, said Candace Barr, owner of Strategic Resume Specialists in Vestavia Hills, Ala. Essentially, you’re helping your students — the profession’s next generation of leaders — take a step forward.

That’s one reason why Christine Cheng, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi’s Patterson School of Accountancy, considers such requests from students flattering. “I think it is an honor,” she said.

Know the student. Given recommendation letters’ importance, professors should be careful whom they write letters for, said D. Larry Crumbley, CPA/CFF, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In this arena, choose quality over quantity. “One does have to be selective,” he said, adding that he’d prefer to write a letter for someone whose research area he has knowledge of because he can write with more authority.

Don’t be afraid to decline. While saying “no” may seem harsh, it may be necessary, Cheng said. If you decline the opportunity to write a recommendation letter, explain why. “I focus on the reason why I may not be the right person to write the letter,” Cheng explained. “This may be because I don’t know the candidate enough or because I am not certain that they are a good fit for the organization [they are applying to].”

As she noted, “The goal should always be finding the perfect fit for both the student and the employer” so that organizations “will continue to look favorably upon other candidates from your institution.” If you think the opportunity is a good one for the student, but you aren’t the right person to write the recommendation, suggest “who in [the student’s] circle might be better suited to writing the recommendation,” she added.

Be authentic. While it may seem easy to copy and paste and recycle paragraphs, “the letter should be individual and not boilerplate,” Crumbley advised.

Cheng said she sees each letter as a new project. “I typically start with a blank page,” she said. “The letter must be sincere.”

Barr suggests that faculty should first identify the target audience — is the letter for an internship, scholarship, or job? — and then include specific information. “Mention relevant coursework and projects with specific examples of the student’s successes or how they impressed you,” she said. “Be genuine; it shows.” 

Be brief. According to Cheng, each letter needs to accomplish several tasks:

  • Emphasize that the person has the qualifications that the organization seeks;
  • Highlight and explain characteristics or skills that may not come through clearly on the résumé. (“I assume that, if a person is reading my recommendation letter, the candidate meets the basic criteria for the position,” she said); and
  • Communicate why this candidate will excel if provided the opportunity.

Limit yourself to one page, she added. “Everyone is busy,” she said. “If I don’t do a good job effectively communicating, then I have done more harm than good in trying to promote the candidate.”

Give yourself time. Given that writing these letters is highly personal, only you can decide how much time to allot to the process.

Cheng said she generally asks for at least a week, but she’ll do one more quickly if something urgent comes up. She doesn’t like to be rushed, however, if the student knew the deadline well in advance. In such a case, she said, she would be likely to decline because the candidate’s actions don’t show a strong desire for a sincere, thoughtful, and personal recommendation letter.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer in the Atlanta area. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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