The Lost Art Of Military Recommendation Letters

The Military has a problem.  Every year thousands of letters of recommendation are written for good Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines in hopes that they get selected for good programs. Unfortunately, most times they don’t say much, and very few actually speak to the character of the individual; in fact, most recommendations are simply a cut-and-paste from one adjective-laden document to another. 

This benefits no one. It is a waste of time for the writer, does nothing to set apart the candidate, and forces the board to wade through letters that offer them no value in selecting the proper candidate. Even worse, this can cause the wrong candidate to get selected for a prestigious assignment. 

The intent of a recommendation is to highlight who you think is favorable, suitable, and qualified for the job. You are utilizing your credibility and influence as a senior leader to offer advice to the selection board. Why not take advantage of that opportunity and make your statement memorable? Why not convey your selected candidate in the best possible light? 

Solution:  Here is a process-driven approach to help your written recommendations stand out from the crowd

Note: These techniques are to be used with caution and discretion:

 If your candidate is only “pretty good,” then you will do your military service and the candidate a disservice by giving him a “most highly qualified selection”. Do not paint your candidate as if he’s in the top 1% when he’s really in the middle 50%; doing so will only set up your candidate for failure and prevent a more qualified candidate from being selected. 

Before starting here are some questions to ask the candidate:

  • When is the recommendation due?
  • Am I the right person to do this recommendation? 
  • What type of individual is the board looking for? (this can be found in the board precepts or application instructions). With a critical eye and reading between the lines, you might be able to see hints of what the board wants.
  • What is the competition level for this position?
  • Who was on the board last year?  Picking up the phone and inquiring about last year’s board is a great way to glean advice, improve your record, and show an above-and-beyond level of interest in the process. 

Use persuasive copywriting techniques

Copywriting is defined as the art and science of strategically crafting reader-focused words (“copy”) which gets people (in this case the board) to take some form of action. Just like the copywriters of the advertising industry it is your job to create a recommendation letter that inspires the board to act.   Gregory Ciotti from CopyBlogger provides some scientifically-backed copywriting tips that will provide some background into good copywriting techniques.  Here are some applicable examples:

First, use pathos, or emotional appeal with a good, gripping story, especially one that you know the Board can relate to. Why? Because good stories are designed to transport and change the reader. Using this storytelling technique alone will help the board remember your candidate when sorting through hundreds of other applicants. 

The devil’s advocate is your friend! Address any objections you foresee the board will have head-on. The following sentence starters serve as excellent examples: “Now I understand you might be concerned about ____ right now.” Another: “While ____ could be a cause for concern, I see it as one of John’s greatest strengths…” 

Do not overly rely on adjectives. Overuse of adjectives (amazing, flawless, commanding, phenomenal, outstanding, brilliant ) is a frequent problem in military writing and causes writing to become less impactful.   They bog down the reader and overuse will dilute the writing and lessen their interest rather than boost it. Verbs, on the other hand, are a powerful and clear way to communicate the candidate’s skills. 

Imply Selection.  When writing recommendations II frequently uses the term  “When you select him…” or “ Upon selection to Dive School….”  This implicit expectation of selection will display confidence in both the candidate and the board.  

Finally combine valuable assets that the candidate has. It not only reads more concisely, but it shows the board how his/her qualifications and goals work together.  For example: “John Jones will not only excel as a Supply Officer, but he is someone who shows the traits of a career military professional and is someone who I expect will spend 20+ years in the Navy.” 

Example Format for Military Recommendations

 When I write a recommendation I try to break it up into four distinct paragraphs; these include Opening and my background, career highlights, gripping or memorable story, and closing. Below gives further examples and additional paragraphs. 

  1. Opening – My background, how I know the individual, for how long, in what capacity and my qualifications to write this award are (Forwarded with my strongest personal recommendation for selection to the Mine Warfare Weapons Tactics Instructor.  I’ve known John Jones for two years, from August 2016 to February 2019,  serving both as his Executive Officer and Commanding Officer, During that time John far exceeded expectations while serving as  N1 department head, lead Battle Watch Captain, and Lead planner for RIMPAC 2018. As a Mine Sweep Sailor, EOD Officer, and Commanding Officer I can think of no stronger a candidate for a Mine Warfare WTI instructor.  )
  1. Career Highlights ( As one of my most trusted Battle Watch Captains and Exercise Planners at COMCMDIV THREE ONE, John Jones set and maintained a high standard of tactical performance and leadership to be emulated by both officer and enlisted ranks. He was an instrumental player in upwards of 30 national, interagency, and multi-national Mine Warfare exercises. )
  1.  Maxim or quote that he lives his life by ( One of the quotes that John Lives his life by is the famous quote from JFK “Pray not for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure”   John encapsulates this “strength to endure” by daily…..)
  1. Gripping Story (the best example of his personality can be summarized in a situation that happened a few months back.  During a very stressful time at the command John Jones….
  1. One word of caution ( If you do select John Jones I do have a word of caution; John will not belong in this position before he fully masters his primary responsibilities and starts increasing his workload, shouldering more responsibility and possibility putting you or others out of work)
  1. One Unknown skill (One unique skill that John Jones has is that he also a part-time violin player for the Oregon Symphony. This shows his multi-dimensional ability……..)
  1. Aptitude for future growth ( Not only will John Jones excel as a supply officer, but he shows the aptitude and critical thinking ability for the type of leader that we would expect as a Future Admiral)
  1. Leadership ability (while John Jones is a technically proficient supply officer, his real skill is in leading a team of logistics professionals. Just last week John…….)
  1. A failure that shows growth and development and willingness to face a challenge (While it may be unconventional to discuss a failure in a recommendation letter I believe this story is instrumental in understanding John’s character.  Just last month John was tasked with the implementation of an experimental program that involved the tracking and management of 200 vehicles spread over three states.  While the program was ultimately unsuccessful, John maintained an upbeat attitude, took full responsibility, and deliberately worked each and every issue.  Even though he was not involved in planning this program, he worked it as if the idea was his very own.  )
  1. Last book he read (John also happens to be a voracious reader who just finished the Entire Horatio Hornblower series…..)
  1. Soft Skill (While John Jones excels at all the typical naval traits, his strongest attribute by far is his ATTITUDE. No matter how heavy the workload,  how dire the environment, or how at risk the mission John’s attitude constantly shines through. Even during RIMPAC 18, our most physically and mentally taxing exercise John was both a light to his team and leadership. I remember frequently walking on the watch floor tired, hungry, and stressed only to be picked up by his smile, warmth, and command of the situation.  Regardless of his many “FITREP talents”, attitude is what John is known by. )
  1.  Final closing –  confidence you have in the individual, future aptitude, and final recommendation.
  1. Hand Written notes. I’ve also seen success with handwritten notes at the bottom of the letter such as:
  • Select her now and then assign her to my Team/Command/Unit.
  • Not only is she a must select, but should be at the very top of your selection pile
  • Select now, You will not regret it!

Closing

If done well a recommendation is one of the most powerful gifts you can give. Not only does a recommendation acknowledge current work, but they provide a glimpse into an individual’s future aptitude.  I’ve outlined what recommendations are and how to create one that will make your candidate shine off the paper when the board sits down to review their options.

How do you write a killer recommendation letter? Anything missing from this list? Leave me a comment and I look forward to reading your suggestions

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