This is the time of the year when professors get asked to write letters of reference for students who are searching for a job or applying to graduate school. I have written many such letters over the years, but really I just have two basic templates that I modify depending on the student and how well I know them.
The first letter says something like: “This student was in my class. He or she got a decent grade. This was a pretty hard class so getting a decent grade required some work as well as an ability to grasp concepts and apply them with some precision to solve business problems. I really don’t know the student very well, but he or she seems like a decent, pleasant person who showed up prepared for class and participated in discussion. I see no reason why you shouldn’t hire them or admit them into your graduate program.” I would estimate that eighty percent of the letters I write look something like this. It isn’t that I don’t want to do more to help the student out, it is that I simply don’t have more information to share with the reader that they can’t already find on the student’s resume.
The second letter says something like: “I have gotten to know this student very well over the last couple of years. He or she was in my class a couple of years ago and regularly attended my office hours. He or she got a decent grade in my class, but I was most impressed with the student’s maturity, drive and leadership potential. We have stayed in touch and I know that he or she has a strong interest in pursuing a career in a highly competitive environment. This is an engaging, high-energy person who has what it takes to perform at this level so I recommended that they consider pursuing an opportunity with your organization. This is someone who is going places and you want him or her on your team. If you want to know more about this student, give me a call.” My letter backs up my claims with specific examples of how the person demonstrated these qualities to me inside the classroom, at office hours, and through extra and co-curricular activities. The letter complements the student’s resume by bring their accomplishments to life for the reader, making the candidate claim’s much more credible and giving them greater impact.
If your best reference letter looks like the first type I write, it is of little help to you. If all of your reference letters look like this or come from a family member, the best the person reading them is going to conclude is that you are pretty ordinary. If you are seen as ordinary you are going to get an ordinary job in an ordinary company. Ordinary jobs in ordinary companies are being replaced by Google and similar computer algorithms that break these jobs down into their simple steps and process those steps faster than you can at a fraction of the cost. Don’t Be Replaced by Google. Work now to get the reference letters you will need to standout from the crowd.
A shout out to Dr. Brad Wimmer for the “Don’t be Replaced by Google” line.