Letters of Recommendation, supplying names for reference

I am asked to write many letters of recommendation every year.  This takes a lot of my time, so I ask you to please make my job easier, and help me and others you might ask to write you a better letter, by following these guidelines. The teachers and others you ask to write you a letter of recommendation will be presenting you to the selection committee. They will be comparing you to other students and applicants. These comparisons will help those in charge of employment or selection to understand whether they should consider you. In turn, you should consider carefully how to seek a good recommendation.

References. Even if you do not ask for a letter of recommendation, ask for permission before you use someone’s name as a reference. This is not just a courtesy, but ensures you that they will be willing to give you a positive recommendation and they will be prepared for being contacted – not taken by surprise. Heed the warnings below about eliciting lukewarm or cold recommendations.

Good letters of recommendation. When asking people to write for you, ask them if they can write you a good letter of recommendation. You should pick people who can not only write well, but write well about you. If they seem uncomfortable with the idea of writing a letter of recommendation for you, ask them to suggest someone else who might be a better choice. A negative or lukewarm letter will not help your prospects, regardless of the prestige of the recommender. If someone tells you that they don't know you well enough to write you a letter, believe them!  If you insist, then you will likely get a letter that states "I do not know this person well enough to write him a letter of recommendation."  Your application is much stronger with two good letters than it would be with two good letters and a very weak, obviously reluctant, or negative letter. Moreover, be careful not to avoid asking for recommendation from someone who is well known to be associated with the field to which you apply, if you have had reasonably good contact with them.  You do not want your prospective employer or grantor to wonder why you did not ask someone they think you should have known and consulted for a specific field or purpose.

With a number of recommenders to consider, choose people who are most relevant to the application you are submitting. For example, ask art professors to write recommendation letters for application to MFA programs, not English teachers. If you seek a teaching position, your art history professor will have limited or no knowledge that you will make a good teacher. BUT…All else being equal, it is better to ask someone who has known you longer and/or who is more familiar with various aspects of your background for the position and who seems impressed by your qualifications. (NOT the one who gave you Cs)

Depending on the nature of the application, you should consider asking teachers, professors, employers, coaches, directors of community services where you volunteered, and anybody who knows you, your qualifications and your work well. Never, however, ask a family member to write a letter on your behalf.

The purpose is to provide prospective employer, internship committee, grad school, etc., with information and validation of your qualifications, and abilities. They want opinions of those familiar with your background and those who know you well, even better if compared with other students or employees.

What is need from you, before someone will write a letter of recommendation

  • Provide a stamped and addressed envelope and any required forms. Provide a sufficient description of the position or program to which you apply for the recommender to specifically address the qualities sought for it. Include your statement of purpose, or some similar document.
  • Ask him or her to write the letter at least four weeks before it is due. Gently remind them ten days before the deadline, asking them whether they have sent in the recommendation or need more information from you. This request should be made by e-mail if possible. One email around the time that the letters are "due" is appropriate, to make sure that I haven't lost the packet or forgotten about you.
  • Do not ask to see a copy of the letter, even if they offer to give you a copy. If the recommender provides you with a copy of the letter, the selection committee may suspect that the letter isn't as candid as it might have been otherwise. If application forms ask if you will waive the right to view these later, say that you will waive the right.
  • Send the writer a thank you note after the letter's been mailed. In all likelihood you will ask them to write additional letters for you. Once they've written one letter on your behalf, the second letter is much easier. If you send them a thank you, it will give them a good impression and make them more willing to spend time writing you additional letters in the future.
  • Contact and accomplishments resume. Remind the recommender of our contacts over the time they have known you. Do not overestimate the amount they will recall about your and your work – you must supply whatever information you want them to relay with the application. List all your accomplishments, both academic and extracurricular. You should provide a copy of your accomplishments resume to the people who will be writing letters of recommendation for you. Even people who have known you for a long time may not be familiar with all of your accomplishments, and the resume can help jog their memory. They will also be able to incorporate details from your resume into their letters, making it seem like they know you better than they do. A summary of key or memorable interactions that we have had. e.g.:
  • "I was the student in office hours who wanted more info on Rembrandt..."
  • "You looked at my final project and said that I was the only one who ..."
  • "I usually sat on the right side of class and asked lots of questions."
  • The resume will also help save them time when they are writing your letter. Writing a good letter takes time, so anything you can do to make this process easier will help. You will also find it helpful to refer to it as you complete applications, to ensure you do not omit any relevant aspects of your background.
  • To the extent possible, give me all of the materials in one packet, rather than bringing things to my office item by item.
  • Adapted from: http://finaid.org/scholarships/recommendations.phtml; http://www-bsac.eecs.berkeley.edu/~pister/etc/recommendations.htm