Importance of Letters of Reference for New Grads


Posted to Nursing, Nursing Jobs, Nursing News, Nursing School

© Yuri Arcurs -

When new nursing school graduates are out looking for jobs, interviews are frequently the deciding factor as to whether they will be hired or not. But in this article on about the importance of letters of recommendation, one person who makes these kinds of decisions, Linda Bell RN-C, says that she is given pause if a reference letter does not match up with an excellent interview. “Then I’ll wait and see other candidates,” she says. “I have to see a solid level of professionalism when the candidate was a student.”

Recruiters are looking for qualities similar to the ones that were important in nursing school, such as respect for the profession of nursing, cultural competence, reliability, and the ability to perform in high-stress situations. These sorts of attributes can be highlighted in effective letters of recommendation.

Today’s competitive job market gives recruiters a choice to hire seasoned nurses instead of new graduates, but some still choose to hire new nurses. Anna Tigar, RN, an experienced nurse manager who supervises a fast-paced, 17-bed medical unit at NSLIJ Health System/Lenox Hill, said she is proud to uphold a policy of hiring new graduates.

“New grads deserve a break and a chance to succeed, and I like being able to role model my nurses for them,” Tigar said. “The qualities I’m looking for are initiative, commitment to safe practice, great character, personal ethics and potential for leadership because all of this makes a great nurse in the end. I don’t care if you ace all your exams. I may look over 100 letters a year so if I don’t see those qualities spelled out, I’ll pass on to the next person.”

But nursing graduates are not expected to perform as expert nurses. “I’m willing to teach skills, and for new grads [those include] time management and setting priorities, but I won’t teach you how to conduct yourself as a professional and compassionate RN,” Bell said.

Students should remember that letter writing is important on many levels. A prompt thank you note after an interview is an expected courtesy and a simple way for applicants to stand out from a large pool of qualified graduates.

“It’s a nice touch to receive a letter back from candidates,” Bell said, “because I do spend a lot of time with them, at least an hour and sometimes, two hours.”

Network strategy

In the past, many nursing students had job offers lined up before or directly after graduation. But today, months may pass as new graduates wait for their applications to be processed and interviews granted, so innovative pathways to practice, such as nurse residency programs or externships, should be considered. Such programs are highly competitive, and solid letters of recommendation have the potential to help new graduates secure a position.

Geraldine Varrassi, RN, EdD, nurse educator at NSLIJ Health System/Lenox Hill, oversees the Hillman Nurse Residency Program, a unique opportunity for students who have not yet passed the NCLEX to team up, full time, with a volunteer RN for eight weeks. She stressed the importance of the letters of reference as an integral part of the admissions process.

“This is a highly competitive program, with [more than] 300 applicants a year,” Varrassi said. “We choose 20 students and our criteria are very high. Make no mistake, after the GPA is reviewed, we read through every reference letter and only then would we offer an interview. The letters of reference are extremely important and you should start thinking about them as part of your network experience in nursing, and that begins the first day that you enter the program.”

Forming and maintaining professional relationships with instructors is an important step to securing letters of reference and is an important workplace skill. Varrassi shared some basic points students should follow.

“The way to obtain a positive reference letter is stay in touch with professors, not on a daily basis, but drop them an email, let them know how you are progressing in your courses, send a holiday card,” Varrassi said. “You may want to use this person again, even after you graduate, so it should be an ongoing relationship. Ideally, the letters are written by someone who knows you well, not the clinical instructor you had last month. I want to see that they are familiar with your achievements.”