By Dr. Cheryl Minnick, NRCW, NCOPE – NRWA Certification Committee Member
Editor’s Note: This is not our typical content for the NCRW Corner, but we thought it was such an important topic that applies to resume writing; we’re featuring it here. This will be helpful to all NRWA members and those seeking the NCRW certification.
College career professionals are often asked to write students a letter of recommendation for a scholarship, internship, or graduate/professional school. To avoid writing a letter of minimal assurance, four content areas should be covered:
1. Describe your relationship to the applicant.
2. Define their focus and success (academic, research, work, teaching, and/or service).
3. Evaluate their accomplishments.
4. Share personal traits only to the extent they predict growth or performance.
Even well-intentioned writers unconsciously embed bias in recommendation letters. To write stronger, nonbiased letters, use:
1. A gender bias calculator: http://www.tomforth.co.uk/genderbias/ or http://slowe.github.io/genderbias/.
2. Titles for ALL candidates (Dr. Smith — not Sarah Smith or Sarah).
3. Standout words for ALL candidates, that are most often used for men (excellent, superb, unparalleled, unique, professional, best, most, terrific, wonderful, remarkable, unmatched, amazing, quick learner).
4. Ability traits (talented, smart, able, capable, brilliant, aptitude, innate, expert, proficient, competent, natural, inherent, instinct, analytical, insight).
5. Compare candidates to scholarship or job requirements referencing research, publications, and needs; avoid irrelevancy (… is well-published, an excellent educator, and great skier!)
To write nonbiased letters, avoid:
1. Grindstone adjectives that are more often used for women, implying success from effort, not ability (hardworking, dependable, thorough, diligent, dedicated, conscientious, careful, effort, work ethic).
2. Gendered adjectives (compassionate, sensitive, enthusiastic, tactful, caring, warm) which stall women’s success, especially those in science/medicine.
3. Using stereotypes (Sarah is emotional) and typecasting (Dr. Sarah Smith is a caring physician). Rather, use neutral adjectives and labels (Dr. Smith is a skilled physician).
4. Faint praise (Although the grant was not funded, she worked hard on the project … His publications are scant … She requires minimal supervision). A strong endorsement (She is made for this job!) is better than minimal assurance (He’ll do the job).
5. Doubt-raisers (it appears, it seems, perhaps, I think, I feel, I believe) which are more often used in recommendation letters for women. (I believe She will no doubt excel.) Research indicates one doubt-raiser decreases an applicant’s chance.
Dr. Cheryl Minnick, NCRW, NCOPE, has been a member of the NRWA since 2005 and has served on the Certification Commission since 2013. For the past five years, she has ensured the NCRW Study Guide aligns with best practices and Gregg Reference Manual updates. She has also served on past committees for Member Support and ROAR Awards. Cheryl regularly presents at NRWA conferences on ATS, implicit bias, new grad resumes, and college career center services.
A veteran of the higher education career development space, Cheryl works as the Senior Career Coach at the University of Montana-Missoula and provides executive career consultations and resume writing for executive career development firms, as well as her own boutique business The Paper Trail. Find her online at LinkedIn.com/in/cherylminnick.