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Recommendation letter for leaders and/or followers

Recommendation Letter for Leaders and/or Followers

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Students,

This is part 2 of my advice on how to get an ideal recommendation letter. Part 1 is here.

By definition, all recommendation letters are filled with praise. Otherwise, it would not be a recommendation letter; it would be a non-recommendation letter. But as the saying goes, it is possible to damn someone with faint praise (or wrong praise). It is also possible to inflict damage through silence (i.e., omission).

1. Take this praise-filled paragraph, for instance: “This student never missed a class. She always delivered her homework on time, and exactly the way I specified. She is someone I can always count of when I need to get a job done.” No doubt, this letter has great praise. But let’s hold our judgement until we read the next paragraph.

2. Now consider this paragraph: “This student is not swayed by prevailing opinion easily. He won’t join in a cause until he completely believes in the cause himself. For example, when we finished a report on How to conserve energy in our school, this student wouldn’t simply accept solar panels cannot produce enough energy for our school. So against my wishes (as supervising teacher) and the wishes of 11 other team members, this student insisted we compute the actual annual amount of sunshine, rather than using an average national value for the United States. We found out the “average” national value for the States was much higher than what we would actually get in northern Illinois. We therefore discovered that it wouldn’t make economical sense to install solar panels in our school. If not for this student insisting we compute actual values, we would have delivered a completely wrong report. I notice, incidentally, that his peers listen when he speaks.”
is the difference between the two paragraphs, if they both praise the student? You know colleges want to select future “leaders.” These leaders are not those who want to have a steady job in a large company and two-car garage house in the suburbs. These leaders, by the colleges’ definition, are people who will create new industries, create new political movements, and do something that will appear in history books.

Which of the two recommendations above better fits this image of leader? The second, of course. If you think about it, (and read it again now) the first recommendation sounds like it was written for a secretary position or a delivery person’s job. It’s faint praise, weak praise, fluffy praise. And yes, you can be damaged by a faint praise or, in other words, by a complete omission of the facts that imply “leadership.”

You cannot tell the recommender to write like #2 for you. The recommender will write as he or she saw you. So the only way you can get a letter like the #2 recommendation letter is by acting like the student in #2. That is, you must spend much time with your future recommenders and display your leadership, integrity, decisiveness and analytical mind on proper occasions. You must also make sure they see you doing this.

Even when you volunteer, think of benefits for not only the recipients of your service, but also for yourself. That is, think about what work type will develop your character in your eyes, as well in the eyes of other people.

I wish you wise and successful choices.



Categories: College Applications
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  1. May 15, 2021 at 8:07 pm

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