Recommendation Letters: A Student Guide to Asking, Getting, and Deserving
Recommendation letters can be difficult to ask for, especially when you consider yourself an introvert like some of us around here. For those of you who don’t, you could still benefit from the points we’re about to discuss.
What you’ll find as the details of each section starts to emerge is this:
- A recommendation for the sake of having one isn’t necessarily helpful
- The content of the recommendation letter is as important as the relevancy of the sender
- You likely will be asking for letters of rec for the rest of your life
If you can swing all that, then you should be ready for this student guide. Let’s get started!
Most Common Uses
Before moving into the ins and outs of how to get recommendation letters that accomplish the goals you have in mind, let’s look at each of the different scenarios in which you’ll need them. There are six primary areas, starting with:
- Community Scholarships: academic scholarships such as the kind you’ll get with the ACT or SAT usually don’t require more than a strong score to make you eligible for funds. Community scholarships are different. While academics are certainly part of the overall package — they want to make sure the scholarship money won’t be wasted — these specific scholarship areas will have other focuses. Many of them involve community service. Not the kind you’re sentenced to, but the kind that shows initiative on your part to make the town, school, or state a better place. If you can demonstrate that through a recommendation letter from someone who worked closely with you on the project, even better!
- College or Private School Acceptance: the barrier to entry for state schools typically isn’t that complicated — that doesn’t mean easy — but when you get into more prestigious universities and private schools, it becomes important that you demonstrate your character and experience in an overall package. Finding reputable people who can vouch for you, in their own words, is a huge feather in the cap to standing out from other applicants, and it’ll probably be a requirement. So, if everyone has to have a recommendation letter or two, then how do you stand out? We’ll get into that later as we discuss content and sources in further detail.
- Summer Job or Internship Program: another common situation where you will benefit from a solid recommendation letter is that of the summer job or internship program. Anytime you’re going to be up against a volume of specialized applicants, who you know and what they think of you is key to breaking loose from the pack. After all, companies are going to be spending a great deal of their own time and money resources on you for the specified period of time. They want to make sure their efforts are not wasted.
- Your First Job: this is particularly true once you’ve graduated from college and the world views you in a more “professional” sense. Of course, if you’re moving into a career, then you’re going to want to focus on experience over character. But both remain important. Focus on letter writers who are aware of your work ethic within the field of study you’ve chosen as a profession. If you did a lot of community service in high school and college, then reaching out to business leaders aware of those efforts will help bridge the gaps that a lack of work experience may leave behind.
- Career Advancement: yes, at a certain point — even after you’ve landed a job or two — you’re going to need recommendation letters to help take you to the next level. The letters should sound much different than the ones that initially got your foot in the door, and they will probably be from a whole new group of letter-writers (i.e., the colleagues and superiors you’ve met along the way).
- Character vs. Experience: before signing off this section, it’s important that we distinguish the two types of recommendation letters you’ll end up needing. Now let’s be clear. These are not mutually exclusive. Ideally, every letter will have a bit of both, but the emphasis will be different. A recommendation letter that focuses on character should be for a position where character is the top tool that you’ll need for the job. But if the top tool you’ll need is mechanical engineering, as an example, then the fact that you volunteer at a soup kitchen on weekends isn’t going to be as important. Keep that in mind before asking certain people to write specific types of letters on your behalf.
Now that we’ve covered those six most common uses, let’s discuss the importance of recommendation letters, the content they should have in them, and who best to approach. Next up:
Why Are Recommendation Letters Important?
Recommendation letters are important because they show two things: who you know, and the justification for their recommendation. While it may seem like a good thing just to secure a letter of rec, the reality is that you could be up against 60 other candidates for a job or an internship or university program
If the requirement is three recommendation letters per candidate just for consideration, you possess just 1.67 percent of the 180 letters officials will be reviewing. Translation: you’d better have some darn good contacts saying some darn good things if you want to be their final selection.
Quality is important, but what does quality mean exactly? It means that your letter is:
- Written by someone who is respected: preferably someone with subject-matter expertise to whatever thing you’re applying for
- Relevant to the position: again, it’s great if you can demonstrate you’re a good person, but it won’t make much difference if what you’re applying for requires specific skills that aren’t included in the letter itself. Make sure the person going to bat for you understands exactly what the recipient is looking for in a recommendation letter.
So what is the easiest way to ensure your recommendation letters measure up? In short, learn to write one yourself. In the next section, we’ll discuss exactly how to pull this off and point you toward some good templates. Let’s continue!
Why You Should Learn to Write One Before Asking?
One of the best ways to learn anything is to actually do it. But why should you have to learn how to write a recommendation letter when you’re the one receiving them?
Quite frankly, you want to be able to make sure the product your references are giving you is usable. Some of the smartest and most capable people in the world are capable of giving you bad references. Not “bad” in the sense that they trash you; but “bad” in the sense that what they’re recommending you for doesn’t really have anything to do with what you’re applying for.
By learning the ins and outs of the letter of recommendation, you can clearly communicate to your references what the gatekeepers are expecting. That saves you and them a whole lot of time and frustration!
So, how do you write a letter of recommendation? Start by viewing some templates online, particularly previous examples for the position or post you’re applying for. The Internet has shrunk the learning curve quite a bit in that regard, so embrace Google or your search engine of choice and just type in something like “MFA [or specialty of choice] letter of recommendation examples,” and it should yield some useful results.
Once you find one you like, take it to the reference and say something like, “You don’t have to use this or anything, but this is along the lines of what they’re expecting, and please feel free to let it guide you.” They’ll likely appreciate the fact you made their job easier for them and write something even more glowing than they would have otherwise!
When Should You Start Asking?
Don’t drop something like this on your reference at the last minute. At the same time, you’ll want to create a sense of urgency so they don’t end up sitting on it and forgetting. We recommend telling them as soon as you can. Observe those deadlines, but also, make sure you provide a finite delivery window.
Even the best references can forget. After all, part of what makes them good reference material is they have a lot going on. Don’t take it as a slight. Just settle on an appropriate window of time and tell them you need it by such-and-such date. Also, thank them for making time for you and ask if there is a time they would like you to follow up if you haven’t heard back. That will emphasize the importance of the recommendation letter without seeming too pushy.
Whom Should You Approach?
People you’ve known your whole life … family friends … not-so-obviously family members … all of these may seem like great sources for a recommendation letter. But it’s not always a lock. That’s because they may not be the best person to speak on a subject.
The people you should approach are those whose respect you’ve generally won. Think about teachers, advisors, people you’ve worked for in either a part-time or full-time capacity. If you volunteer, the administrators of those volunteer efforts would make great selections.
Exhaust the possibilities. Don’t go with the most obvious. Go with the person whose recommendation will create the biggest impact.
On Grammar and Punctuation
Of course, it matters. But don’t let it stop you from asking someone who may not be the strongest in these areas. If these individuals care enough about you to agree to writing a letter of recommendation, then they’ll want to put their best foot forward.
And if grammar and punctuation is a source of panic for them — this is particularly true in technical fields — assure them that you can catch any mishaps through a program like Grammarly or the Hemingway App.
Very few people who are on your side will forbid you from changing their poorly-edited words to something that is grammatically correct. If they care enough about stuff like that, then they will likely go the extra mile to ensure zero mistakes on their end.
How to Broach the Subject?
Now that we’ve covered the types of recommendation letters, the content, and the specific people you should ask, let’s talk about how you ask for it. Essentially, this is about who not to ask as much as it is who to ask. You don’t want to ask for a letter if it hasn’t been earned.
What does it mean to earn a recommendation letter? It means that you’re asking someone who isn’t going to have to lie their way through the letter, sacrificing their integrity in the process. You want people who can legitimately vouch for your best qualities. Otherwise, it’s difficult for them and emits a sense of entitlement that makes you the type of person no one will ever want to recommend on their own.
How do you find someone authentic? By doing good stuff or at least putting forth your passion, enthusiasm, and best effort. Never give half-effort, then expect someone to be eager to endorse you.
What to Do When You Get One?
Before closing out this post, it’s important that we talk about the aftermath. If you wish to be the type of person who never has trouble getting letters of recommendation, then you need to know how to be grateful and show that to others. After all, they’ve taken time out of their lives to write the letter, proof it, edit it, format it, etc. Furthermore, they’ve staked their reputation on the possibility that you will fulfill the promise they’re making on your behalf.
With that in mind, make sure you tell them you’re thankful verbally. Also, show them you are by writing a formal thank-you note. This is something we like to call the two-factor authentication of your sincerity. Plus, it’s great practice for making the necessary political maneuvers that you’ll face as you progress through your career.
Recommendation Letters Are More Than Words on Paper
Recommendation letters can literally make-or-break your employment opportunity at a prestigious company. They also create documentation of your positive work ethic and reputation. Take them at least as seriously as you do your social networking, resume, and cover letter. If you do, you’ll be thrilled with the rewards. Good luck, and Happy New Year!
[Featured Image by SVG Silh]