For some reason, a negative stigma is connected with recommendation letters. When I was a freshman, I thought that “recommendation letter” had a deeper meaning; it was either the coordination headache or the hardest obstacle of the application. However, even though you might be as convinced as I was that the deeper meaning was true, it is actually a myth. Recommendation letters are extremely useful in the job/ scholarship process. For both professional positions and academic scholarships, the letters serve as a second opinion and validation of you as a candidate.
I’ll give you a couple of analogies. If you are in the science field, probably you have done replicates of the same experiment. The reason that you do so is because evidence of the validity of the experiment needs to be recorded and established. The same idea occurs in any application process. The reviewers need to validate the information within your personal application; they do so by conducting replicates or reading recommendation letters in this case.
The same phenomenon happens in non-related science fields, like market analysis. In order to objectively market a product, statistics and facts need to originate from different sources. Only then, can statistics become valid, ensuring market platform success and eventually customer trust.
Since similar validation processes exist, it makes sense why selection committees ask for recommendation letters. However, understanding why an application wants one or several doesn’t take away the pain and sweat to actually get one. But don’t worry; once you have the process down, it eventually gets easier.
Asking for a strong recommendation letter involves four stages: the choosing process, the question phase, information gathering and sending, and finally, the “thank-you” phase.
Choosing Your Recommender
One of the toughest aspects of getting a recommendation letter is knowing whom to ask. This is where you can utilize your little friend (or enemy): your network. Yes, the network that academic advisors, professors, and professionals including the CCO strongly advocate. Your network acts as your professional and academic support. Your professors, supervisors, research and academic advisors, co-workers, friends, and family are all possible examples of people to include in your network. With that being said, your network should be the first area you look into for possible recommenders.
The second aspect to think about is who would be the right person to ask. You have many people in your network; now, you need to decide which person or couple of people to be your recommenders. I would suggest asking the people who can describe the skills and characteristics the application is asking for. For example, I would ask my research advisor to write a letter describing my performance in a laboratory setting for graduate school. Similarly, if I was applying for a scholarship that wanted me to express leadership skills, I would ask my work supervisor or organization advisor.
Most people get stuck on this category because they do not have a strong network. That’s fine; it’s still possible to obtain a great letter, but you need to allow yourself time and commitment. Contacting people outside your network is challenging because they wouldn’t know you as well to write a decent letter. For this reason, request rejection is common. This is where the time and commitment is helpful. If you have enough time to find a willing person and can convey to them your commitment to the application, then you’re on the right path to a great recommendation.
How to Ask “the Question”
There are a number of ways to ask your potential reference to write a recommendation letter. However, before you type the question in an email, I want to remind you that your recommender doesn’t bite (unless he/ she is a shark). The best way to get an effective letter is to ask for it face-to-face. Why?
Well, the simple answer is that the reference can immediately recognize who you are. This is essential if you want a tailored, well-thought-out letter for your application. Also, talking face-to-face will take the awkwardness out of asking “too much” of the person. Take this opportunity to briefly explain what you are applying for and why you are committed in doing so. Then, ask if they are “willing to” help you out by writing the letter. That’s it, short and simple.
If you can’t meet with the person face-to-face, then I would consider asking via email. Phone should be last resort since you cannot physically send them information regarding your request in the next phase. The email should be short and focused, and follow the same elements as a face-to-face conversation. First start with reminding them who you are and then give the scope of what you would like to highlight in your application. Then ask the question. Sign you name. And click send.
Finally, if a rejection results, don’t sweat. Just make a U turn and start the choosing and asking phases again with a different person.
Getting the Information from A to B
If you could write your own recommendation letter, what would you write? This is the question you need to ask yourself before you ask someone else to answer it for you. Think about what you could physically (or electronically) give the recommender to help them see what you want them to write.
To get you started, I would suggest to give your most updated resume highlighting key characteristics and skills that make you a strong candidate. Other documents include transcripts, project portfolios, research posters, and personal summaries. Whatever document you choose to give, make sure that you include the deadline date of the letter and the contact info of the person that needs to be addressed.
After this, you are ready to play the waiting game. Allow your reference about two to three weeks to write the letter. Also, make sure to follow-up when the deadline is close to remind them of their commitment.
Spread the Thank-yous
After the recommendation letter is sent, there is one last task left to do, the Thank You Letter. Yes, since your recommender took the time to write an amazing letter for you, it is only fair that you write an amazing thank you letter for them (or if you are really generous, take them out to eat!). If you do choose to write a thank you email, be sure to highlight how amazing they are by helping you and thank them for their time.
These are just a few tips to make obtaining recommendation letters less painful. If you need any help with recommendation letters, come visit the CCO in YONG 132. I wish you all the best and good luck in your applications!