It often happens that the people who you want to write your recommendation letters are too busy to take the time to sit down and write the entire document themselves. Don’t be surprised or intimidated if you are asked to write a first draft, which your reference will edit and sign. Instead, think of this as a great opportunity to highlight your best qualities. After all, you get to choose what will be said about you!
If you ever come across a situation where you are asked to draft your own reference letter, here are some steps and tips for how to write a reference letter highlighting your skills while writing about yourself on behalf of another person.
The letter should be two to three paragraphs long, beginning with your relationship to the person signing the reference, followed by the skills that you developed or showed over the course of your relationship with this person and character virtues that you displayed. Remember to write this in the 3rd person about you.
Step 1: Figure out the type of letter.
You first need to determine what kind of reference letter this will be:
- Employment reference
- Character reference
- Academic reference
Are you writing on behalf of a former employer, good family friend or one of your college professors? It is important to distinguish the type of reference letter that will be written before diving into the skills that you wish to highlight. It makes much more sense if an academic letter—such as one coming from a professor—highlights skills related to your love for learning, motivation and drive, etcetera. On the other hand, a letter coming from a past employer would be more focused on professional skills—like demonstrating leadership or initiative—that you showed in former jobs.
Although we distinguished between three separate types of cover letters above, every reference letter should touch upon your character or personal qualities.
Step 2: Highlight the skills you displayed in your interactions with this person.
Always keep in mind the context of the letter and who is writing it to ensure a genuine and plausible statement about who you are. You want your reference letter to make sense, so you must take the time to reflect on your experiences and focus on a few key skills or traits you showed during your relationship with the person who’s referring you. Use personal examples to strengthen your points.
Step 3: Choose the skills that will be valuable in your new job.
Just as you chose skills that you displayed in your interactions with this person, you should also choose skills that you know are important for your new job. Pick several qualities that you know are highly coveted in the job or industry you are applying in, and focus on the ways you demonstrated these qualities in the past.
Step 4: Finish with a quick summary and permission to contact.
You should always end your reference letter with a quick summary of the skills that were highlighted in the letter as you bring things to a close. Also add the line, “Feel free to contact me if you have any questions,” to give your reference the option to communicate with your potential employer over the phone or via email if necessary. (Of course, you should definitely ask first before including this, but usually someone who is willing to provide a reference for you should not have a problem with being contacted.)
Keep in mind, you can always ask for help.
If you’re still worried about writing the wrong thing, it doesn’t hurt to ask your reference a few questions before you write the draft. You may just want to ask him or her which character traits you exemplified or what makes you stand out in their minds.
While determining how to write a reference letter about yourself can seem a daunting task at first, it is just another exercise in highlighting your qualities through example, something you will have to do throughout all parts of the job search. As you become increasingly familiar with your “career self,” defining your skills and qualities can be a fun and fulfilling task.
Mario Schulzke is the creator of CareerSparx, an online course that helps recent college graduates begin their careers. For more information, download their free 61-page guide on how to start your career or check out the CareerSparx blog. When not helping recent graduates ignite their careers, Mario works as a senior director at WONGDOODY, curates IdeaMensch.com and is training for Ironman Switzerland.
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