Two Letters

Let’s get right to it.

Before you leave college, you will need two letters of recommendation, from two professors with a kick-ass introduction like this:

To Whom It May Concern:

Let me set the tone of this letter right away.  I have had the pleasure of working with some incredible young people throughout my career.  One of them earned her PhD at Stanford and is now an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School. Another student earned his PhD in Political Science at Princeton.  Others are at the top law schools in the country. And, one went on to become a CNN Hero of the Year. 

_______ is one the most incredible students to have ever graced my classroom.

– dr H

That’s the kind of introduction I write for my “best” students.

But, before I tell you how to go about getting an introduction like that, let me acknowledge something right away. I purposely bedazzled that introduction with some high-profile, ivy-loving institutions. I also name-dropped a media corporation. Why? I want to grab the letter-reader’s attention, immediately. Now, I’m not a fan of this; but, in our culture names like that grab people’s attention. However, and this is an all-caps HOWEVER, I do not want you getting wrapped up in the pursuit of external validation. I lived that life for a long-time. I still flirt with it every so often. And, let me tell you, its a miserable life.

Having said all of that, it’s wonderful that those students achieved those things. That was their goal. They accomplished it. That’s awesome. And, I am super proud to have been a small part of their journey. However, you need to define success on your own terms, not our culture’s terms. Moreover, you need to define it in a way that is consistent with your values and the kind of mark you want leave on this Earth.

Hell, that could be being a world-class bourbon nerd. I have one those among my former students. And, if he was ever to ask me for a letter (which he never would because he does not believe in pursuing a conventional path through life), I would write a similar introduction for him. Not because he was an academic juggernaut in the conventional sense in the conventional classroom. Nope. He and many other of my former students are the “best” because they are some of the most incredible humans I have ever met.

And, it is not just me. The definition of “best” is changing. It’s no longer limited to graduating with a 4.0 GPA and a ton of tassels cascading down the front of your graduation gown.

That’s great news for all of us.

So, how do you go about earning two kick-ass letters of recommendation?

I can only speak for myself.

But, for me, when it comes to you, I will ask two questions.

First, will I write you a letter of recommendation?

Well, it depends. 

I will if one or more of the following apply:

  • You took at least one course from me and did very well.
  • I supervised your senior thesis.
  • We worked on one or more projects together over the course of at least one year.

If none of the above apply to you, then I’m not in the best position to write you a strong letter.

Here’s the thing, on most applications, I’ll be asked:

  • How long have you known the candidate?
  • In what capacity?
  • How do you rank this candidate relative to all of your former students?

Now, on some very rare occasions, I’ll still write a letter for a student even if none of the above apply. Sometimes, a student just needs a letter. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll tell them that I cannot write them a strong letter. I’ll even tell them that I’ll have to use my all-purpose template letter.

What’s that?

It’s a basic letter that I have on stand-by. I’ll change the date, the student’s name, the class(es) they were enrolled in with me and the respective grade(s) they earned. I’ll change a few adjectives here and there to describe the student, making sure to calibrate the letter to fit my experience with them as a student.

Here’s the thing. You do not want my (or anyone else’s) all-purpose template letter. Not because its bad. No. It’s not. It’s still positive. It just does not stir the soul.  Here’s an example of an all-purpose template-like the letter I got from Professor Gil Klose upon leaving college. Enjoy. And, you’re welcome.

So, onto the second question.

What kind of letter will I write for you?

Well, it depends.

You see, I have a reputation to protect. And, the content of your letter will influence the value of all of the future letters I write for all of my future students. For example, the Dean of Graduate Studies at George Washington University once sent me an email that said:

“Any more students like Megan send them our way.”

Pretty sweet.

However, if I send George Washington a glowing letter for another student who sounds like a “Megan” in the letter but is not a “Megan”, then my reputation is blown and this hurts my future students.

So, I have to carefully calibrate each letter for each student.

I basically write three types of letters for my students:

  • Good – Damn, that was a good project we worked on together.
  • Great – Holy Sh*t, that project would not have succeeded without them.
  • The Best – @*%^!, I cannot imagine my professional/personal life without them.

Most of my great and all of my best students have worked on multiple projects over multiple semesters with me. I’ve see them in the conventional classroom setting and in unconventional spaces. And, after two to three years of working and producing projects together, I can write them a two-to-three-page-single-spaced-one-inch-margins-all-around-font-size-eleven-letter-of-recommendation with a kick-ass introduction.

And, there is one thing that all of these students have reported back to me after having had experienced the job market or the graduate school or law school market. Namely, interviewers and admission panels routinely asked them:

  • Do you have a story to tell about taking the initiative? 
  • Thinking on their feet?  
  • Confronting overwhelming odds, staring down those odds, and conquering those odds?

My students needed experienced-fueled stories to tell. And, they had them. You will need them too.

Now, that’s a rough outline of how it works for me. But, you may not want to work with me. That’s all right. I know. I’m an acquired taste.

So, if not me, then how do you find your two professors?

  • Figure out which fields interest you the most (anthropology, political science, history…)
  • Review each  department’s homepage on your college’s website.
  • Go through the list of professors in each department and review their curriculum vitae, websites and social media channels.
  • If they are working on something that interests you, reach out to them via email and ask to meet to learn more about their work.
  • During your meeting, ask them interesting questions and offer to assist them in their work for free. 

Remember you goal. By graduation day you want:

  • Two Professors
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Two kick-ass introductions

Get started today. And, you too can be like Zach:

Good luck!


Go here for more 21st Century College Advising.


A few Postscripts:

  • The resume is pretty much dead. It is a relic of little informational value. We all know that a one-time “inventory-analyst” is just a stock-boy. That was me. Now, does that mean that students like you need to stop writing resumes? Nope. But, it does mean, that you have to do more. Much more to separate yourself from the rest of the resume-writing crowd.
  • If you are a student-athlete, your coach cannot be one of your two letter writers. Coaches only say good things about their players. That’s why we love them. That’s why I loved my college football coach. However, its also why their letters are of diminished value.
  • There are a couple of tensions in this post that I want to address: (1) I say the resume is pretty much dead but employers still ask for them and (2) I tell you not to worry about external validation but still name-drop. Here’s the thing. Whether we like it or not, you and I have to work with the world as it is. But, we also need to be attuned to how it is changing and continue to work to change it.
  • You can review a list of letter of recommendation logistics on my Advising page.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn