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“Should I Write My Own Recommendation Letter?”

January 16, 2019 :: Admissionado

Maybe your recommender of choice is just too busy right now, or maybe you’re not so confident in their ability to get it done, or to do it well. Besides, you know how your solid your work has been, you know your own strengths, you basically know what they’d say…can’t you just crank that letter out for them?

Don’t do it. Writing your own recommendation letter is a self-defeating exercise, and it’s simply not worth it.

The best reason we can give you is that if the adcom suspects you wrote your own letter (and it’s much easier to tell than you might think), then you’ve just given them every reason to ding you, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is. You’re taking a huge risk here: a self-written recommendation will immediately undermine what might otherwise be a great application, and can turn an admittance into a rejection faster than Elon Musk can shoot off an offensive tweet.

Even if you manage to avoid suspicion, which, we’ll say again is harder than you might think, there’s a reason someone else is meant to write a recommendation for you. An outside perspective on you, your qualities and your work adds immense value to your application. You can’t have the kind of insight and perspective that a manager, colleague, or mentor might have on your strengths and potential, so if you write your own letter you miss out on that addition to your application, and you’re only cheating yourself.

Have you ever seen a video of yourself or listened to a recording of your own voice, and been shocked at how different you appear or sound to others? Well, that’s the recommendation. It’s a whole other perception of you, and you will lose out if you rob your application of that unique aspect.

Simply put, you will not be able to write the kind of recommendation letter a recommender could, and it’s all too easy to spot a self-written rec (remember, the adcom reads hundreds of applications every season—they’re experts), and kill your chances of admission.

So, what do you do if you meet with resistance when you ask your recommender for a letter? What you are really asking for is a little of their time and energy, and while any good manager or mentor should be willing to expend a little time and energy on you, one of their most valuable employees, every once in a while, this does happen. They claim they are too busy, or that they are no good at writing anyway. Whatever it is, you’ve hit a wall.

Recommended Reading: How to Choose a Recommender That Strikes the Right Balance

First of all, if you meet resistance, negotiate! If they simply aren’t willing to take the time to write a recommendation letter, and they are definitely the person you need a rec from, try to get as much as you can from them. See if they’ll write up some key points, outlines, or sketches, and you can translate that into sentences that they’ll review and approve. If they’re not keen on that, suggest a conversation in which they simply tell you what they might say, and you take careful note of the content and tone to capture in the letter. If nothing else, at least ask them for a “review” of your first draft to make sure that it’s in line with what they would say.

Before you fall back to self-writing though, think carefully about who else you might get to write your letter. Even if it’s a manager from a year or so ago, this will be a better addition to your application than a letter that the adcom can tell that you wrote, and you can include a note of explanation about your recommender choice in that additional, optional essay.

If you absolutely cannot convince your recommender of choice to write you letter, and you don’t have any back-up recommenders, then here are a couple of tips to keep in mind as you self-write. Despite these helpful tips, we do NOT recommend this route.

1. Change up your tone

If you were impersonating someone else on the phone, you probably wouldn’t use your own voice, and nor should you in this letter. The adcom will have ample evidence of your written voice in your essays, and if the recommendation letter you send matches the tone and voice of the essays, well then you’re in trouble, my friend. Put yourself in your recommenders’ head, think about how they speak and express themselves, and try to put that on the page. Don’t go over the top though, or it will sound artificial. The best way to vary your tone is to write a first draft without thinking about it, and go back in and edit the phrasing here and there to change up the voice.

2. Vary the content

In a similar vein, you will want to vary the content you include. If you tell all the same stories in the recommendation letter that you did in your essays, that will tip off the adcom that there is something fishy going on. Be careful of the level of detail that you provide as well. While in the essays it was key to share your thinking behind key decisions or leadership moments, if you do so in the letter of recommendation it will be obvious that you wrote it yourself. There’s simply no way that your recommender will remember the same level of detail, or have had insight into your motivations when it comes to your key accomplishments. Try to tell them from an outsider’s perspective.

Again, we can’t emphasize enough just how unwise it is to self-write a recommendation letter: it simply isn’t worth staking your application on if you can possibly avoid it. Even a sub-par letter from your “too busy to help” manager will be better than an obviously self-written letter!


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