A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
It’s easy to forget, but there is a life after Leiden University. Perhaps you’re planning to continue your studies elsewhere, or maybe you’re looking for your first real job. Either way, you’ll probably come across this not-so-beloved application requirement: A letter of recommendation.
For most students, asking for a letter of recommendation is a real pet peeve. You don’t know most of your professors that well and it feels like you’re asking them for praise (what if they say no?) – awkward. Now, there are two important points to consider: First of all, most professors really want you to do well in life and are enthusiastic about recommending you. They might even be flattered because you chose to ask them! Secondly, you’re doing yourself a favour by asking for a letter of recommendation – it’s extremely likely that you’ll need it soon. What better time than quarantine to get a head start on collecting all the required documents?
There was one thing I really didn’t know when I asked for my first letter of recommendation: That I’d have to write it myself. Retrospectively it makes sense: After all, our professors have lots of students, and nearly all of them ask for a recommendation at one point. It’s more effective to have each student draft their own letter, and then just make some minor changes if they don’t agree with a specific point.
It felt really awkward to draft my own letter of recommendation, but I did learn something for the next time I’ll have to do it:
Don’t be afraid to praise yourself. A letter of recommendation is meant to be honest, but do not sell yourself short. It’s supposed to describe your best qualities, and you should be proud of them. So if you’re really good at something, don’t shy away from words like “outstanding” (I know, it’s weird).
Pick the right person to recommend you. Even if you’re drafting the letter yourself, it is important to choose someone who knows you as well as possible. You want to be specific in your letter, and describe many of your best qualities. A teacher that barely knows you might not feel comfortable signing something that they cannot attest to.
Check the internet for samples. Ideally, your letter of recommendation should be unique (like yourself) and tailored to your person. Nevertheless, read some sample letters before you start drafting your own. There are countless samples on the internet, that you can use to get a feeling for what you want to highlight or how to structure your letter.
Tailor your letter to its purpose. If you already know what you’ll need the letter for – perfect! A letter that recommends you specifically for the Master’s programme of your dreams will do a lot more for you than a blank cheque stating that you’re a great student. Of course, that also means that you can only use it once – but then you can just write more letters (the more the merrier).
Ask a friend to check your letter. Before you hand in your draft, make sure to have a friend check it. Spelling mistakes are the last thing you want to have in your letter and they can tell you whether you were too modest (or too peacocky). After all, your friends know you a lot better than your professors.
It is always good to have a letter of recommendation in stock, even if you just use it as a supplementary document. Under non-corona circumstances, it’d be nicer to approach your professor in person. Now, make sure your mail is polite and not a demand (apparently that’s a common mistake). And just like that, you accomplished another thing while in quarantine!
What is your secret weapon when it comes to writing letters of recommendation? Leave a comment to share!