for a Recommendation
- The Net's Premier Resume Writing and Editing Service
a letter of recommendation requires considerable effort. Don't just blurt out a
request to a supervisor or instructor you see walking down the hallway. Choose
your letter writers carefully, and plan out your timing and approach. Most
importantly, don't procrastinate.
1. ASK SOMEONE WHO
KNOWS YOU WELL
When deciding on whom to
ask for a letter of recommendation, don't simply think of those classes or
projects in which you have done well: think of those instructors or supervisors
who are most familiar with your work and achievements. Admissions readers look
for evidence of the letter writer's familiarity with your work. Without this
type of evidence, the letter lacks credibility and force.
College and Graduate
School Applicants: If you are applying to an academic program, it's
preferable to have letters of recommendation from upper-level course
instructors. Remember that, although letters from senior professors are often
more impressive than ones penned by teaching assistants, most senior faculty
members receive large numbers of recommendation requests. Depending on the size
of your college, senior professors sometimes must teach a wide variety of
courses. As a result, they seldom come into close contact with undergraduates.
While you might be tempted to request a letter from a tenured academic
superstar, refrain from doing so unless you know the recommendation will be
strong. An impressive signature will not compensate for a lukewarm letter; in
that case, it's much better to have a stellar letter from a junior faculty
member of TA who knows you well and can comment on your specific abilities and
achievements. Keep in mind that sometimes a professor will be willing to co-sign
a letter written by a TA, or will simply adapt and then sign a letter written by
Professional School, and Job Applicants: When applying to business schools,
professional schools, and jobs, you should ideally have a letter from your
current employer. If you have not been at your current job for very long, you
might instead ask a former employer who is familiar with your work and
achievements. The same rule of thumb described above applies here: although you
might feel tempted to request a letter from your company's CEO, refrain from
doing so unless that CEO is indeed knowledgeable about your accomplishments.
Your direct supervisors will generally be far more familiar with your work
history and style, drafting a far more effective letter.
2. ASK EARLY
College and Graduate
School Applicants: Don't wait until the last minute. Instructors are
invariably flooded with recommendation requests at the end of the semester (as
well as near application deadlines), and you don't want your letter to end up
just one more item in a long To Do list. Likewise, be sure to take into account
foreseeable busy periods at work and common holidays such as end-of-the-year
If you approach your
instructor a few months before the deadline, you will avoid putting him or her
under undue pressure, and you give him/her plenty of time to ponder your
performance. As the deadline approaches, you can always send the letter of
recommendation writer a friendly reminder of the impending deadline. A quick
email or phone call should do the trick -- but don't err on the side of
pestering your letter writer.
A note on timing: it's
never a bad idea to begin cultivating relationships with key instructors early
on in your academic career. Participate in class discussions, visit your
instructors during office hours, and show an active interest in their research.
Catching your instructor's attention doesn't necessarily make you a sycophant,
and standing out among your peers might prove very useful later on when you
actually request letters of recommendation.
Whether you are in high
school, college, or graduate school, don't wait until your last year to ask for
letters. If you took a fascinating course your sophomore year and did
particularly well in it, ask your professor for a letter at the end of the
semester -- even if you don't plan on filling out applications until your senior
year. Most professors (or rather, their secretaries and assistants) keep copies
of letters filed or saved for future reference; if you show up two years hence
requesting a recommendation, that professor will already have a written record
of your accomplishments.
Professional School, and Job Applicants: Whereas academic letter writers
usually have a great deal of practice writing letters of recommendation, company
employees -- even in the higher echelons -- vary widely in their experiences
with recommendations. This is one among many great reasons to get the process
started as early as you can.
In addition, it's a good
idea to continuously build your recommendation portfolio. Ask your employer or
supervisor to write you a letter whenever you leave a job, branch, or office
(assuming you are leaving in good terms) where you have a made a considerable
contribution to the firm. A copy of the letter will prove invaluable later on if
you ever decide to go for an MBA or apply for a position that requires such a
letter, and it will help your by-then former employer to remember your specific
qualities and accomplishments.
3. ASK PERSONALLY
When asking someone to
write you a letter of rec, don't simply send an email or leave a voicemail
message. It's to your advantage to ask the person face-to-face; not only does
this allow you to clarify any doubts about the request, it automatically conveys
to the recommendation writer just how important this letter is to you.
INFORMATION ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR PLANS
Many instructors and supervisors deal with dozens of recommendation requests
every year. Even if you are a stellar student or employee, they might not
remember that smashingly astute comment you made on Kant's Categorical
Imperative back in March, or the speed with which you smoothened loan
negotiations during that Korea project. Along with the letter of recommendation
form and materials (see below), include a vivid reminder of your past
accomplishments, particularly those with which your instructor or supervisor is
already familiar. You might include a resume, a pared-down version of your
personal statement, and/or a relevant writing sample (preferably one written for
that particular instructor, and one which earned you a high grade or
About Your Plans.
If you intend to study agronomy and your instructor is under the impression you
are planning on pursuing astronomy, your admissions readers might end up with
either a hysterical or quizzical letter of recommendation. Make sure that your
letter of recommendation writer is aware of your plans, even if they seem hazy
to you at this point. State your plans clearly: "Mr. Guzman, I am applying
to Colby College." "Prof. Leary, I am applying to the PhD program in
biochemistry at the University of Iowa." "Hank, I am applying to the
Information Technology track of ISU's MBA program." Write down your plans
somewhere; that way, Mr. Guzman, Prof. Leary, and Hank won't get confused.
Again, handing in a
concise outline or summary of your personal statement is not a bad idea,
especially if you focus on your achievements in that instructor's class or under
his/her supervision. Also consider giving your instructor or supervisor a copy
of your resume, which should remind him/her that you are an individual with both
focus and broad interests.
5. PROVIDE THE LETTER
WRITER WITH ALL THE NECESSARY MATERIALS
Most applications include
specific forms for letter of recommendation writers. They often ask for both a
written-out statement and a series of ranking or short questions. If you are
asking your instructor for several versions of the letter -- for instance, if
you are applying to a number of schools -- you might remind him/her that the
statement need not be written directly on the sheet itself; it can simply be
stapled to the form.
Always provide your
letter of recommendation writer with stamped envelopes. If you are asking for
multiple letters, it's a good idea to organize all the forms in one folder and
include a cover sheet with a list of the schools for which you are requesting
letters. Remember to include envelopes of the appropriate size, and overestimate
the value of stamps (remember that the instructor might attach extra pages to
Some applications require
the instructor to return the letter to you in a sealed envelope. Don't forget to
ask the writer to sign across the flap of the envelope.
Finally, you might
consider providing the letter writer with a diskette for saving a copy of the
letter. Chances are the letter writer saves these letters on his hard-drive
anyway, but a new diskette might serve as a reminder of the importance of
keeping a backfile. Letters, after all, have been lost in the mail before -- not
to mention in admissions offices, which are flooded with mail around each
application deadline -- and there's always a chance you might have to ask for a
second copy to be sent out.
6. WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO
READ THE LETTER
Federal Law grants you
access to your letters of recommendation, but many applications include a form
where you can waive your rights to read the letter. We highly recommend that you
waive your right to read the letter when given the option to do so. Waiving your
right reassures the admissions readers that the instructor has written a candid
letter -- that is, without the bothersome pressure of knowing that you might
read it one day. Studies have shown that confidential letters carry far more
weight with admissions readers.
In addition, letter of
recommendation writers are far more comfortable writing a complete, candid
letter when they know the applicant will not have access to the text. If you
fear that the letter writer might not do justice to your achievements or might
include negative information -- well, that's a good sign you should not be
asking that person for a letter of recommendation.
7. SEND A THANK-YOU
Always send your letter of
recommendation writer a thank-you note after you know the letter has been sent
out -- whether or not you have heard from the school. Don't wait to long to do
this: a week or two is a good timeline. Of course, if you are eventually
admitted to that coveted program or land that sought-after job, you might want
to call up your letter writer to share your good news and thank him/her once
again. Never hurts to quietly share your success, especially with those who
helped you to achieve it.
Note for Business and
Law School Applicants
The same rules above apply
for business and law school applications, but these are often a bit morute
aborate than regular college or graduate degree applications. Many business and
law school applications spell out exactly what information they will be looking
for in the letter of recommendation forms. The instructions will often include
specific sub-questions such as:
Please provide us with a
concrete instance in which the applicant demonstrated his or her leadership
What are the
applicant's main strengths?
What are the applicant's main weaknesses?
What will this applicant contribute to our program?
Letters that contain
concrete, vivid anecdotes supporting their claims are stronger than ones that
fail to go beyond abstract generalizations. Likewise -- and this is particularly
true of that pesky question about your weaknesses -- letters that balance
achievement with a candid assessment of perceived weaknesses are far more
convincing than letters that contain only superlative comments. Admissions
readers, even those at the top schools, are not interested in flawless
candidates: because flawless candidates don't exist. They are interested in
people who are willing to tackle challenges and learn from their mistakes; thus,
the best b-school letters of recommendation balance praise, candidness, concrete
evidence, and convey both focus, breadth, enthusiasm, and resilience.