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I applied for an internship opportunity with several private companies, and one of them got back to me over the phone. During the conversation, the HR manager mentioned in passing that they were willing to take me in as an intern largely due to the endorsement I received from a government department.

This was very shocking to me, because first of all, that recommendation letter was almost a carbon copy of 3 other letters. I applied to 3 different companies, so got one letter for each of them. And in each one, the only thing that was different was who it was addressed to. Everything else, from the heading to the body, was exactly the same. On top of that, it wasn't even a sparkling recommendation. It was simply, in sum, "he is part of our program and we are endorsing him, and would like you to make a 240-hour training program for him yourself, and we hope you agree."

My CV, on the other hand, looks impressive for an intern applicant. I've got a cum laude standing, and I've done impressive extracurriculars, received some great scholarships, and so on and so forth.

When I sent out the applications, I wasn't counting much on the recommendation except they'd get me noticed. But it seems to me that a bland recommendation has completely overpowered my CV. Is this an accurate feeling?

How important is a recommendation letter for an internship, and is this also the case for when you're applying for a job?

I'm asking because this might be a really good reason for me to ask for another recommendation when I do graduate (if they'll endorse me again). But I'd like to know how important this recommendation is first. I've always put value on the person doing the work, rather than the person talking about how great another person is, so this stuff is catching me off guard.

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I am going to address the why

they were willing to take me in as an intern largely due to the endorsement I received from a government department

Generally speaking, hiring decision makers in industry do not use recommendation letters. Academia depends heavily on those letters though. The letters will not matter after you graduate unless you are going to look for jobs in academia.

You are applying for an internship opportunity with private companies. Most small to mid size companies do not have these opportunities; only large companies have them. Most large companies care about governments because governments have power.

An endorsement letter from the government carries a lot weight to large companies.

Most large companies not only care about governments but also often have business relationships with them. Your case is no surprise to me at all.

Again, recommendation letters may not be that useful when you look for real jobs in industry.

  • Thanks for answering the why. I'm accepting your answer because you both answered my question and gave a reason for it. I'm still a bit shocked, but I'm glad to hear it's not so much the case in the industry anymore – markovchain Mar 22 '13 at 15:09
  • Sort of on a tangent to this answer...A letter of recommendation could carry a LOT of weight if it is written by someone the hiring manager/staff knows and respects. In scaahu's answer, the company knows and respects the government. Also, in the case of internships in particular, any recommendation from someone that the intern has worked for in a related industry is likely to carry a lot of weight if the grades are decent. Without any prior history, interns are just a roll of the dice anyways. So if someone thought the intern was good that lets you at least roll some loaded dice. – Dunk Mar 6 '14 at 20:13
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I wouldn't dismiss the importance of having a solid resume to present. That being said, the presence of a recommendation letter is a differentiation point to help you stand out above those who only have the strong resume. For an internship, the recommendation letter would carry a lot of weight, because it serves as a personal endorsement of your ability to succeed from someone who valued and respected you for no other reason than your worthiness of being valued and respected. Once you get into the professional realm, the recommendation letter may not carry as much weight, but should still be considered a positive addition to your application package.

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You are interpreting the fact that "that recommendation letter was almost a carbon copy of 3 other letters" as something negative. Maybe the person who wrote it did not want to spend too much time writing three. (I consider that a more likely and more powerful interpretation).

He/she did recommend you three times, that's more important than the form it took.

  • I like how you see it in a positive twist. Yes, I did think it was a leaning on the negative, since it didn't really feel like a recommendation to me. But I like this idea, and will definitely keep it in mind in the future – markovchain Mar 22 '13 at 15:06
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I think it depends on if the letter of recommendation was offered to you or if you requested it. Generally people are not going to write a bad one (and if they did you wouldn't use it). So I would consider it just another tick in the box, so if you had it and also a good resume then it just gives you another edge. The most important thing is to be able to demonstrate your skills, and if the letter of recommendation doesn't say much then there's not that much use other than the fact that you were not afraid to ask for one and the other party was at least willing to provide one.

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According to AskAManager.org, letters of recommendation are not useful in most settings (excluding academic settings) because the hiring managers want to speak to someone, not read something that the applicant has pre-approved. A reference can give clues in their responses that a letter doesn't protray. You would not use a letter with faint praise.

However, if you also provide references for them to call, I think they probably don't hurt, and occasionally may help, as you experienced. I've had a case where an old letter of recommendation had a name that the hiring manager recognized, and I think that helped.

  • A reason for the downvote would be nice. – thursdaysgeek Jan 24 '14 at 18:54

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