At around this time of the year, my students begin to approach myself and my colleagues for a testimonial (I believe in some cultures, you might have called it a recommendation letter). My students often attached one of these together with their university or job application. I also take it as part of my responsibility to use the power of words to give students deserving of these opportunities a better chance to succeed.

The question is, what is the best way to write the testimonial such that we can cast a spotlight onto our students, so that they stand out prominently among the thousands of applications from graduates like them?

I like to highlight two tricks I use to ensure I do justice to the students I’m writing testimonials for:

(1) Structure

Structure – Highly structured. Easy to follow. Highlights the student’s strengths with clarity.

Why? Make it easy for the reader! The poor hiring manager and university admissions need to scan through hundreds of applications. If they got lazy to read the testimonial I wrote, my students missed their chance to shine.

Personally, I have a “formula” to do this:

  • Paragraph 1: Academic Results
    • One liner overall analysis + Specific examples and observations supporting my analysis.
  • Paragraph 2: Hard Skills (Ability to Put Theory to Practice)
    • One liner overall analysis + Specific examples and observations supporting my analysis.
  • Paragraph 3: Heart Skills / Personal Strengths
    • One liner overall analysis + Specific examples and observations supporting my analysis.
  • Concluding Remarks

The three paragraphs showcase the breadth of my students’ abilities as an all-rounder, and in each paragraph, the depth of the achievement. The first line of the paragraph explains the student’s strength clearly, leaving no space for misinterpretation. The rest of the paragraphs are evidences to support my claim.

There are also two types of evidences I present to make my case and I always use a mix of them:

  • Quantitative: The data. The grades. The certificates. The activities my student is involved in.
  • Qualitative: My PERSONAL observations (Must include!). The compliments that other people gave about my students. The other testimonials my student receives.

Such a structure also lends credibility to the testimonial.

(2) Choice of Words

Choice of words – Upbeat and personalised.

Why? Upbeat because everyone loves good news. Personalised because we are describing a unique person after all!

In particular, I cannot emphasise enough on the importance of making it personal because:

  • It can show added credibility: I know my student well enough to give a testimonial about him/her.
  • It gives my student a human touch. He/She is after all, human.

What do you think? Do you have a great way to write recommendation letters to share with me too?