Tips about Letters of reference for new graduate nurses

“Would you write me a letter of Reference?”

Tips on recommendation letters for the new nursing graduate

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A reader asked me some very specific questions about recommendation letters from faculty. Should you just get one letter and send it to each potential employer? Will faculty feel bothered by repeated requests? Which faculty members should you ask for a letter? How do you go about getting these?

All of these are practical questions, and I will now reveal to my gentle readers, one of the hidden mysteries of nursing school.

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Rule Number One: It’s not only about the grades, it’s about the relationships. Think about it, meditate on it, we’ll get back to this idea in a minute. I am planning a future blog which will be titled “develop your personal Board of Directors” – an idea I borrowed from Tom Peters and other Management Gurus. You will need career advice for the next forty years, not just now.

First the nitty-gritty answers: Employers vary in how they want to deal with letters of reference, so you should follow the instructions given by the potential employer. You will recall, if each job applicant has to submit ten pieces of paper, and there are twenty job applicants, any given employer is tracking two hundred items for their files.

Some employers ask that you collect all contents of the packet yourself and submit; others believe that a reference is more likely to be honest if it is sent independently. Still others will only ask for the names and phone numbers of references, and rely on a phone conversation with each person giving the reference.

General principle: A letter is better if it looks like it was individualized to support a specific person for a specific job, and if it indicates that the writer truly knows the personal qualities of the applicant. So, if possible, one letter per job, addressed to the specific HR person or nursing department head. Most faculty nowadays save such letters as a Word document, and can easily cut-and-paste a new addressee. No problem. So – when you ask for a letter, always supply the name of the addressee, the address, and the name of the job for which you are applying. My personal policy is to always include these in each personalized letter, and never to write a letter that says “To Whom it may concern”

Back up for a minute. If all you do is ask for a letter of reference, you are missing the program and failing to maximize your use of a valuable resource.

Which leads to rule number two: Never use a faculty for a reference unless you ask them first.

Always tell them your plans if the plan changes as you go along. Keep them informed along the way. When you ask for the reference, do it in person if possible, be prepared to sit and talk for a few minutes. If you did something worthy of note when you took their class, such as doing a project or paper, bring or send a written reminder as to what it was, so the faculty can include it as a specific example of why they are recommending you. Tell the faculty the deadline. Usually, when I have these kinds of meetings with students I will ask some questions and give feedback as to whether I think the person’s plans are realistic and how they can strengthen their case. This seems elementary, but it will always help you in the long run.

Rule number three: From the beginning, develop a collegial  relationship with faculty members.

This one needs expanding. In ten words or less, the students who are more articulate about their goals, who ask for advice more frequently along the way, and who will use the faculty as a sounding board, are more likely to get better letters of reference when the time comes. If you are a student who disappears in the crowd and never draws attention to yourself, you miss an important part of professional development.

Rule Four: Outcomes, not tasks, in the letter of reference. In an earlier blog I wrote about resumes and how you should focus on outcomes, not tasks. To carry through with that line of reasoning, the goal of a reference letter is not simply to verify that you were in class or in clinical, it is to indicate what you did and how well you faced the challenges. You have to be honest with yourself as to how well you did and what you contributed, and the faculty will help you develop this kind of self-appraisal.  If you are still a student reading this, start thinking now about what you can do to set this up and make this happen.

In a future blog I will write more on the idea of setting up your personal Board of Directors.

To all readers of this blog: Merry Christmas and may your nursing days be merry and bright!


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