What Recommends a Recommender?


In my post Who Knows (the Best) You, I strongly suggested that, when you’re deciding who to ask to write you a letter of recommendation, you choose people who honestly know a few nice things about you. But maybe you’ve got dozens of eligible grown-ups who know you better than you know yourself — so here’s some special “extra” qualities of good recommenders that you might want to also consider. The following attributes are not required, but may be useful in helping you narrow down which people in your life you will first ask to recommend you:

Is the person articulate? Who on your consideration list is especially good with words? If you frequently work on a volunteer crew that cleans up litter off the local beach, your supervisor from the Parks and Recreation Department would be an excellent person to write a letter about you, except for the fact that English may be his second language and putting thoughts onto paper may not come as easily to him as knowing the best way to help a beached whale. Give preference to the people on your list who are known to write and speak eloquently, but don’t despair if you really need a letter of recommendation from a person who is less articulate. A creative person like you can always find a way!

Is the person reliable? Your physics teacher is definitely brilliant, and she just LOVED how you built a working nuclear reactor for the science fair using Play-Doh and a hamster on a wheel. The only trouble is that she has hair like Albert Einstein and she is always walking around in an absent-minded daze. Before requesting a letter of recommendation from her, ask yourself if you are prepared to follow-up frequently—almost obsessively— to make sure she gets the letter written on time!

How long have you known the person? It is often impressive to have a recommendation letter written by someone who has been a part of your life for a very long time. If nothing else, this proves that the individual has known you for years and you haven’t done anything yet to make this person hate you! Your ability to remain tolerable for extended periods of time can say a lot about your good nature. Keep in mind, however, that simply knowing a person for many years is not enough to make them a good candidate for letter-writing. The person also needs to have a certain amount of credibility. Your best friend, Bertha, has probably admired and emulated you ever since the first grade, but do you really think the scholarship judges will care about her opinion of your extraordinary skills in amateur body piercing and your expertise at slumber party organization?

How well-suited is the person to recommend you for this scholarship? If you are entering an art competition, a few good people to ask for letters would be:

  • Your art teacher
  • Your curator friend at the museum you regularly visit
  • The shopkeeper who has hired you six times to paint his storefront window

If you can match your recommendations to the purpose of the scholarship, for example, your pastor for a religious scholarship, your coach for an athletic scholarship, and so forth, their praises will definitely add credibility to your application packet. Just be cautious about choosing people ONLY because of their title or position. Remember that you want recommendation letters from people who are honestly enthusiastic about you and your goals! Definitely do not cheat by seeking out the endorsement of prominent individuals who don’t really know you at all. If you start stalking him during your freshman year, you might eventually trick George Lucas into signing the bottom of a letter that recommends you for a film school scholarship, but may the Force be with you when the committee finds out that you don‘t actually know the guy!

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