What Do Employers and Colleges Look for in Recommendation Letters?

If you’re applying for admission in a college or are on the hunt for a job, you know that there are several steps you must take in order to increase your chances of being selected. From having an excellent performance record in your previous institute or workplace, to a great recommendation letter that highlights your abilities—if you’re serious about being selected—you’ll take all these factors into account. 

However, just having a reference letter isn’t enough when you’re competing against several other candidates for the same position. They all have recommendation letters of their own as well. What’s important is that you need to have a letter that stands out and really sells you as the best option for the job or college. 

Here’s what employers and colleges look for in a recommendation letter:

What Do Colleges Look for in Reference Letters?

Colleges get from hundreds to thousands of applications every season. They look at your academic records, extra curriculars, and your own statement regarding why you want to study at that college. They also look at your history of interest towards the subjects you want to study. This helps them decide whether you are serious about the education that the college offers.

Because many people drop out of college—they’re careful about who they offer admission to. A high dropout rate and only a few students graduating each year creates a bad impression of any college, and they do their best to only take students who aren’t likely to drop out.

When shortlisting students based on recommendation letters, they look for the following points.

  • Your class participation: were you an active and engaged member of the class who came prepared to answer questions and offer your own opinions? They want to know how much you learned in class and how interested you were in the subjects being taught.

  • Your chances of success at the college you’re applying to: a well-researched reference letter is based off of information about the college you’re applying to. It includes a detailed list of your skills and abilities that make you a perfect fit for the school. For example, your ability to work well under pressure and meet deadlines consistently is important when applying to a competitive college. 

These skills should come with examples as well. For instance, the person writing the letter can talk about how you put together a presentation in extremely short notice—and how you can be depended upon to do this again in the future. They can also give examples of your inclination towards the subject, for instance, if you want to study journalism, they can mention how you worked for an entire summer as an intern at a news agency.

  • Description of how the person writing the letter knows you: a good college recommendation letter should have an explanation of how the person writing the letter knows you. For example, were you a great student in their class who quickly caught their attention? It should also mention how long you two have known each other. This helps colleges gauge how specific the letter is to you: when written by an old professor who has known you for quite a while, the letter will be more specific to you.

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What Do Employers Look for in Recommendation Letters?

A reference letter for work must state specifically what you are qualified in. You must make sure that the letter only mentions information about your experiences and skills that you will be able to measure up to if you get the job. 

Here are some factors a new employer will look for when going through a reference letter.

  • Your experience: do you have the experience that the new workplace requires? These experiences should be backed with examples about your performance. For example, if you are experienced in working with Microsoft Excel, the letter should discuss certain instances where you put together a thorough collection of data using Excel. Your experience should include a list of the job duties you had, as well as a list of your workplace accomplishments.

  • Your dedication and competence as an employee: another important factor is how dedicated you were to your previous job. Employers want to avoid the process of hiring again and again, hence, they want employees who are competent. A competent employee who knows how the work is done and can carry it out successfully has fewer chances of leaving than someone who is struggling to perform.

The letter should mention times when you were able to meet the workload and deliver exceptional results despite limited resources or time. They should also discuss how you are always looking for learning opportunities from those around you so that you’re up to date on newer ways of getting the job done.

  • How well you’ll fit into the new workplace: again, employers want employees that are going to do their job well. When your recommendation letter discusses particular skills that you have which are directly linked to the new job, it increases your chances of being selected. Does your new job require excessive traveling? Your letter should talk about your willingness to go on work trips and the great impression of the organization you created through all your interactions.

  • Your teamwork and independent work ethics: because jobs require varying amounts of working in teams and working on your own, a letter which discusses your competence at both is going to create a better impression than one that doesn’t. Your future employer should know how open-minded you are when working with others, and your ability to stay focused when working on your own. 

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Final Words

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what colleges and employers look for when going through a recommendation letter. Remember, a well-written reference letter can make it easier for them to shortlist among the hundreds or thousands of applicants they get—so don’t take this aspect of the application process lightly. 

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