Getting Great Recommendation Letters for Accelerated Nursing School

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If you’re applying to Boston college accelerated nursing programs, you already know it’s common for admissions offices to require one or more recommendation letters for accelerated nursing school as part of the application. These may also be referred to as “professional references” or “academic references,” and they can easily become an afterthought in the application process—the leftover task you think about once your essay and transcripts and interview are out of the way. But the recommendation letter is a critical piece of the overall picture from an admissions team’s perspective, and failing to give it sufficient attention can mean the difference between the “yes” list and the “no” or “wait” list.


What Makes a Recommendation Letter Great

For those seeking practical application tips for accelerated nursing programs, an important one is to put the same amount of thought and consideration into selecting your references as you put into your essay or goal statement. There are three questions you should ask when selecting the lucky recipient(s) of your request for recommendation letters for accelerated nursing school:

1. In what capacity does this person know me?

In a perfect world, the head RN from the hospital where you volunteer writes a glowing recommendation letter for your accelerated nursing school to the admissions office about how she could just tell nursing was your calling from the very first moment she saw you interact with a sick patient. But alas, most of us do not have the perfect reference ready and waiting. What if you don’t know any nurses, have no healthcare experience and have never encountered a real patient?

You might be surprised to learn that the circumstances in which you and your reference know each other do not need to be relevant to the degree you’re pursuing. Sure, if someone in healthcare can write a moving letter about your potential as an RN, so much the better. But it’s far more important for your reference to know something concrete and detailed about your professional and/or academic performance, even if it’s totally unrelated to nursing.

If you have to choose between your uncle’s golf buddy who’s the Chief of Surgery at the city hospital but has only met you once or the mid-level store manager who saw you stay after hours several times to go the extra mile for a customer, choose the store manager. An “ordinary” reference who can speak firsthand and in detail about your performance in a specific situation makes for a more compelling recommendation than someone with an impressive title who doesn’t really know the first thing about you.

That brings us to another important tip: schools call it a “professional reference” for a reason. Aunt Joan may think you have a lovely singing voice, and your college pal may be in awe of your ability to stay out all night and still ace your eight am biology test, but neither is an acceptable choice as a professional reference. Professional references need to be able to speak to your actions and abilities in a professional context—at work, as a volunteer, in a caretaker role, as an organizer or team leader, etc. Likewise, academic references need to be able to speak to some intellectual undertaking you’ve been involved in. Your brother, your roommate, your best friend’s mom, your hair stylist… these do not count as references.

2. Is this person best qualified to talk about my actions, or my general character?

If the recommendation letters are to be believed, every nursing school applicant is “smart,” “responsible,” “hard-working,” “caring,” “dedicated,” “passionate,” etc. How will your letter be any different? You don’t have control over how it ultimately turns out, but there are things you can do during the asking process to nudge your reference in the right direction.

First, understand that it’s perfectly okay to “coach” your references, as long as you don’t go so far as to attempt to dictate the content of their letters. But most writers, especially if they haven’t done a reference letter in a while, will appreciate some ideas on the kinds of things they could include or some reminders about specific situations they could describe. If you need more than one letter, this also allows you to ensure that various aspects of your accomplishments will be covered.

One important message to convey to your letter-writer is that showing trumps telling. The very best recommendation letters describe a candidate’s actions, not just his/her characteristics. Admissions officers don’t want someone to tell them Amy is smart; they want someone to describe, based on firsthand observation, exactly how Amy solved a difficult problem or developed a creative solution. Then they can conclude for themselves that she’s smart. So rather than gush that you’re “dedicated and caring,” your reference should cite a specific example that clearly illustrates those traits—the more detail, the better. Past actions are the best predictors of future behavior, and a big purpose of the recommendation letter is to foreshadow how you’ll perform in nursing school.

By the way, your reference doesn’t need to have concrete examples to support every single one of your fantastic attributes and characteristics. Even focusing on just one good example of one positive trait can make for a powerful letter.

3. Will this individual be candid?

It may sound surprising, but some of the worst reference letters are those that paint the candidate as a saint and have nothing to say that isn’t glowing or full of hyperbole. Positive comments are expected, certainly—you wouldn’t pick someone to write a reference if they were going to be negative—but letters that sound too good to be true usually are. A reference that sounds candid and truthful, with a realistic assessment of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, carries much more weight.

About those weaknesses… what if you know your recommender has observed a few, er, shortcomings along with all your wonderful accomplishments? Or witnessed a major mistake you made on the job or in the classroom? You may be tempted to eliminate such a person from your list of options, but don’t be too hasty. If you have a good reference in mind who happened to be there for some of your less-than-perfect moments, let him or her know you’re okay having them be frank and candid about those as well, as long as they also talk about how you handled the situation and grew from the experience.

We’ve seen some great letters describing how a candidate suffered a setback, addressed the issue and ultimately became a stronger person as a result. We’ve even seen some that started out with recommenders saying they did not think so-and-so would make a good nursing school candidate, until something happened that completely changed their mind. After all, nursing school is no bed of roses… knowing how to correct and learn from your mistakes will play a big role in becoming a confident, capable registered nurse.

At the end of the day, your recommendation letters, along with your personal essay, are the only way for the admissions team to get a glimpse of your personality beyond the numbers. They are what make you human, what allow the decision-makers to relate to you, and what help signal whether or not you’ll make a good nurse. A great letter is one that provides a window into how you behaved in a professional or academic situation, and how that behavior is linked to your success in an accelerated nursing program. If you can help your references understand that, you’re well on your way to a strong nursing school application.

Now that you know how to get great recommendation letters for your accelerated nursing school application, don't wait to any longer to start your dream career as a registered nurse? Contact an admissions counselor today.

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