It’s that time of year when students ask teachers and employers for recommendation letters. Well, it’s always that time of year, isn’t it? References are important, whether you’re hunting for a job, internship, scholarship, or a spot in grad school. There’s a right way to ask someone to vouch for you, and I hope this post makes your future reference-asking go more smoothly.
References or Recommendation Letters?
Many jobs/internships/scholarships/schools may require you to provide the contact information for any number of references (if they don’t say a number, you can always ask what they’d prefer, but the default is usually three) rather than to provide full letters of recommendation. This is ideal, I think, because it’s less of a drain on the whole of society than having people write full letters, especially for highly competitive programs. Let me explain what I mean by “drain.” When I was applying for professor jobs–and I applied to quite a few–most of the schools required three full letters of recommendation. Now, in this job market, any given professor job may get 50 or more applicants. Some search committee/employer will have to sort through these applicants, and they will probably make a short list of 10 or fewer applicants they think are worthy based on their resumes/CVs. It is only at that point that the committee will actually turn to the letters to read them. So what does this mean for, say, the other 40+ people who weren’t shortlisted? It means that each of their three recommendation letters essentially goes to waste. That’s 120 letters. That’s 120 different people out there who spent maybe as much as an hour preparing and writing your letter of recommendation. That’s 120 hours of human intellect and labor wasted. It’s a big drain on society in general. I much prefer organizations that only ask for the contact information of references up front. This is much easier to provide (i.e., it only involves the person providing the recommendation to say “yes, put me down as a reference” initially), and it’s a lot more respectful of people’s time than the full letter charade. The reality is that employers will probably call these references anyway for additional commentary beyond the letter they wrote, so might as well just cut the letter part out entirely and stick to the phone calls.
But I digress. Back to my point.
Some application processes ask for a list of references, and some ask for full letters. Either way, you need to ask the person who is recommending you if they’re comfortable doing so. This means you need to get prior approval to use their name before you start spraying your application around on Monster.com. And if they give you full access to use them as a reference widely, it’s still a nice gesture to send them a quick list of jobs you applied for. That way, when the recommender gets a call, they have some kind of clue that it’s coming. Full letters of recommendation require a lot more work on your part. That’s what the rest of this post is for.
Asking for a Recommendation
When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation for you (or if you ask if you can list them as a reference on your application), you need to make sure you’re not just asking for “a letter.” You need to ask for “a positive letter.” This is a picky point, but there are some people out there that simply say “sure, I can write you a letter,” and then they write a lukewarm or even negative letter. After all, you didn’t ask them to write a positive letter, did you? (I know this is crappy, but it happens. It happened to me once, and I found out about it and learned my lesson.)
The best way to ask, I think, is to meet with the recommender and tell them a little about what it is you’re applying for and why you think you’re a good fit. You don’t need to put on a salesy pitch about why you’re the right fit for what you’re applying for (because they don’t get to make the decision, you know), but it’s important to give some kind of a rationale for why you’re pursuing the thing you’re pursuing. Then, actually ask the following: “I think you can speak to my strengths and my fit for this [scholarship/internship/school/job], and I would appreciate your support. Would you feel confident providing a positive letter of recommendation for me for this?” When you phrase it this way, you give the recommender the opportunity to answer you frankly. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they think you suck, then you’ve given them the opportunity to tell you right then and there that they’re not up for the task. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they feel that they don’t know enough about you, then you’ve given them the opportunity to ask you for more information before they agree to write your letter. And if they do feel confident writing a letter for you, then you’ve kind of boxed them in to writing only a positive letter, which is what you want.
The majority of the time, though, the person you’ve asked to write a letter for you likes you, respects your work, and they don’t have a problem vouching for you. Let’s move on.
Who to Ask
First and foremost, the people you ask to write letters of recommendation for you need to really know you. They need to be able to write a detailed, personal letter of support, not a generic letter that they write for all students. This means that if the best person to recommend you is a Ph.D. student who taught you in their class rather than some distinguished professor who you barely know, then you ask the Ph.D. student. It’s ideal not to have an entire slate of letter writers with “lowly titles,” but a detailed, personal letter from someone lower in the ranks is much more valuable than a generic letter from someone who has a big title or some kind of political prominence. And, of course, the ideal ideal scenario is to have a slate of letter writers who are both powerful/respected/have big titles AND who know you well enough to write a detailed letter.
Second, you want to aim for some breadth, too. If you’re applying for a graduate program, for instance, it’s OK to have a letter or two come from people NOT in higher education. If you have an employer who can write a good letter, include it. But if it’s for a graduate program, you definitely need at least one (and ideally a majority) of your letters from someone in academia. Try to build a collection of letters than can speak to your many strengths. If one recommender knows your research ability really well, one knows your teaching ability well, one knows your work leadership experience, and one has taught you in a class, then you have a great collection of letters that speak to the whole picture of who you are.
When I applied for professor jobs at research universities, I had letters from my dissertation advisor (who was kind of expected to write a letter for any professor job I applied to…it’s a red flag if your advisor doesn’t write you a letter), a professor from another discipline I had worked on a grant project with, a professor from yet another discipline who knew my research well, and a professor who knew my teaching and service very well. For professor jobs at teaching-oriented universities, I asked a slightly different crew to write for me, focusing more on my teaching abilities and less on my research prowess. Think of the image you want to put forward. Find the people to bring together to help you put forth than image. Have them write the letters.
When to Ask
As soon as possible. People need at least a week to write a letter of recommendation. Two weeks or more is preferred. And if you ask more than a month in advance, it’s worth following up closer to the deadline to remind them. Asking for letters less than two weeks before a deadline ain’t nice.
Once you’ve got some people on the hook to write letters, you need to get them the info they need. At minimum, this means sending them some information about the scholarship/school/job you’re applying for and instructions for where/how to mail the letter, including a deadline. Ideally, though, you should provide as much material as possible about the scholarship/school/job AND about yourself so that the letter writer can tailor their letter. Remember, the goal is for your recommenders to write detailed, personal letters, so let them know more about you and your reason for applying. Give them a copy of your application or goal statement or writing samples if you’re comfortable sharing that with them.
If you ask for multiple letters for various things you’re applying for, I also suggest providing the letter writers a spreadsheet or calendar with deadlines. When I asked for a bunch of letters when I applied for professor jobs, I sent each recommender an Excel spreadsheet listing details about each letter. For each letter, I provided the following information:
- the name of the department and university I was applying to (e.g., University of North Carolina School of Journalism & Mass Communication)
- the name of the actual position I was applying for (e.g., assistant professor public relations)
- the contact person to address the letter to (e.g., “Dr. So-and-So, search committee chair” or if there isn’t a specific person listed, just “search committee members”)
- the job description (e.g., a link to it if it was online)
- a few notes about the position (e.g., insider info you may have, whether you met the employer at a job fair a few months ago, who you may know at the company, and so on)
- a few notes about what you’d love the letter writer to say (e.g., I put things like “for this letter, I know they’re looking for someone with new media expertise in addition to public relation competence, so I’d love for you to really emphasize how my research addresses new media and society”)
- who else I had asked to write a letter for me (this helps the letter writer see who else is writing for you. If they know, for instance, that you’ve asked someone else who knows your teaching skills better than they do, then they feel less pressure to cover that issue in their letter)
- instructions for submitting the letter (e.g., an email address to send it to; an online system to upload it to; whether the envelope needs to be sealed, signed, and given to you to include in one large application packet; a mailing address if it needs to be mailed; and so on. Providing them a pre-printed envelope with postage on it is a nice touch, especially if you’re asking for tons of mailed letters from people, but generally your recommenders can spring for the stamp)
- the deadline for sending the letter (and if it’s a “received by” deadline vs. a “postmark deadline,” you should explain this, too)
Following the Rules & Following Up
Follow all the rules for an application process. If they absolutely do NOT want more than three letters of recommendation, then don’t send four. But if they just simply say “three letters required,” then you shouldn’t necessarily feel boxed in to just three letters. If you think a collection of four letters speaks to your strengths the best, then send all four. But try not to send five or more for a three-letter application.
If your application and letters are submitted as part of an online system (which is increasingly common), then you can probably track your status to see if/when letters are uploaded and your application is complete. But if this is not the case, it is perfectly acceptable to inquire with the employer/scholarship/school whether the letters were received and your application is complete and valid. If you know all of your letter writers mailed their letters in a week ago and you haven’t heard from the employer/school/scholarship that they’ve received them and your application is good to go, it’s OK to shoot someone at that organization an email and ask. This isn’t an opportunity to sell yourself; it’s just an opportunity to innocently ask if your application was received in good order.
If you follow these guidelines for asking for a letter of recommendation, you’ll be in good shape. And I certainly know if more of my students used this format, I’d be in good shape. I’m interested to know if this information is helpful. Leave a comment here if this was useful for you.