Letters of recommendation: What are they? Why do we need them? And how on Earth do we ask for one?
A letter of recommendation is a way for your potential employer, graduate school, or supervisor to understand your skills, character, and career goals. Most graduate school programs, full time jobs, and even summer internships ask for a letter of recommendation. They’re really important because they give your reader an inside view of what you’re like as a student or employee! They’re also a good way to showcase some specific experiences or skills that might get overlooked in a resume.
Making sure you find the right recommender can be challenging. Here are some tips for getting the best recommendation.
When asking for a letter of recommendation it’s best to start early. There are two main things that take time. The first is building a strong relationship with your intended recommender. Whether that’s a professor, research mentor, or work supervisor, it’s important to make an effort to engage with them on a periodic basis. This could be attending office hours, asking questions about your recommender’s field of study, or even having informational interviews with them. The better your recommender knows you, the better your recommendation will be!
The second aspect of starting early is giving your recommender enough time to write the letter. It’s best practice to give at least one month in advance, and more if you’re applying to graduate school. At absolute minimum, you want to give them a two week’s notice. This will allow them to reflect on your work and character, and have a conversation with you if they want more information. They might ask for a resume or CV to refer to (which you can get feedback on at the Greene Center during drop ins or through an appointment with an advisor).
Remember, you’re not the only person who might be asking for a letter of recommendation, and you’re not the only request on their to-do list. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that your mentor has a life outside of work!
Do your research
Make sure you know what your program/internship is asking for! If you’re applying to a research program you might want to look to a research mentor or professor who can speak to your technical skills. Alternatively, if your program asks for a recommendation on your character, you might get one from a supervisor, advisor, or professor whom you have a more personal connection with. Communicating with your recommender about what your program is looking for can help them highlight relevant skills.
Be honest and flexible
Honesty is the best policy! Make sure that you’re honest in your judgement of which mentor will write you the best recommendation. Having a conversation about what you’re looking for and what your mentor can provide in your letter is the best way to get a strong recommendation. This might mean that after you tell them what you’re looking for, they’re not able to provide you with that letter. Better to be honest than have the wrong letter sent on your behalf.
If the person you were hoping to have as your recommender declines — be flexible. Know that there are many reasons someone can decline to write a recommendation and that asking someone else might provide a stronger reflection of your skills.
Stay in touch!
Absolutely send a thank you to your recommender. Writing a recommendation is a big part of most applications. Keeping them up to date on your applications and career goals is a great way to stay in touch. Remember, this is someone you’ve worked to establish a good relationship with — keep that going! Mentors can provide a lot of guidance even after you’re accepted into a program or internship.
If you keep those four things in mind when preparing to ask for a letter of recommendation, you’re bound to be successful. You can always make an appointment with an advisor or stop by if you have any other questions!