Asking for Letters of Reference
In contrast to the previous post that draws on the advice of others, below are some my thoughts on job and graduate school requests for letters of recommendation. Some of the points may seem overly simple, but based on my experience over the past couple of decades, not considered by many applicants.
Who should I ask to write a letter of recommendation? Generally, if three letters are required, each letter should discuss a specific aspect of the applicant’s potential. Together, the letters should make up a non-redundant complementary whole. Ideally, for a graduate school application, one letter should highlight academic performance, one research potential or work ethic, and the third letter can highlight another relevant qualification/experience of the candidate, or combine some variation of the first two. For a job application, the three letters should highlight different strengths/experiences the applicant brings to the position that may or may not include academic and research performance. Regardless, the three letters should not all focus on your excellent ability to count widgets, unless the position you are applying for is that of a professional widget counter. Redundant letters are wasted opportunities to show breadth.
Note too that applicants occasionally think that if three letters are required, six are better. This is not true. Assuming the logistical possibility of even submitting more than the required number, the first three letters received will be considered and the remainder tossed. Too, letters from parents, laterally ranked co-workers, clergy and other personal acquaintances are not of value, except perhaps in rare circumstances.
In my opinion, the best way to ask someone to serve as reference or write a letter of reference, is something like “Will you be able to write me a strong and supportive letter of recommendation?” If uncertain of what their response might be, give them an easy out like “I realize I have only taken one class from you” or “Although you have only known me for six months . . .” If the response is no, weak, or a qualified response, the writer is essentially saying ask someone else. Whereas a reference letter that notes limitations is wholly acceptable, a letter that notes mediocre performance is a death knell. If an applicant does not have three professors or employers to provide strong supportive statements, that is a problem the applicant needs to address separately.
When should I ask for letters of recommendation? One month’s notice is a reasonable expectation for writing letters of support. I will not consider requests with less than two weeks notice except under the most exceptional of circumstances. Realize that faculty are flooded with requests at this time of year. For me, writing the first letter for an individual student will take at least one hour to review their documents and compose the letter. Additional letters for the same individual take less time as the first letter is generally adapted for the additional recommendations.
What information should I supply to the writer for a letter of recommendation? The short answer is – everything the writer asks for. Specifically, supply a copy of your transcript, resume, a final version of your statement of intent, any relevant test scores such as GRE, and all the forms, contact information web addresses, and due dates for the letter. Everything provided must be in final form unless you are specifically consulting with the individual on your draft statements. Make the final forms available at the time of the ask. That is, don’t ask for the letter one month before the due date but provide the necessary materials five days before the deadline.
What should I do after I supply all the information to the letter writer? Check with the writer one week before the due date to verify they wrote and submitted the letter. Right or wrong, ultimately it is applicant’s responsibility to follow-up and not assume the writer submitted the letter. For example, I recently ran into a student I wrote a letter of recommendation for a summer fellowship. I asked if they received the award. They responded they had not and I commented that was unfortunate because I thought their application was strong. The individual then noted that the other two letter writers did not turn in their recommendations on time thus voiding the application. The fact is, when checking in with the letter writer, some will need the reminder and others will simply be appreciative of your professionalism in staying on top of the application process. For most electronic applications, both the student and letter writer receive confirmation once the letter is successfully submitted. Although I rarely have this happen, a simple note by the applicant to the letter writer thanking them completing the task goes a long way (see point 3, slide 9 from the presentation referenced in previous post).
What should I do after the application, letters, and paperwork are all submitted? Let your letter writer know the status/results of the application. If someone goes to the trouble to write a strong letter, that also means they are interested in your career development. Keep them informed – this is also a good practice if you want them to serve as a reference in the future.
An important note on job references – When using an individual for a reference on a job application, inform them of that fact. THIS IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT because a former employer, supervisor, or work related person who is listed on a job application, but not asked to serve as a reference, can be legally bound to only provide a prospective employer with your dates of service and job classification. That is, they cannot and will not serve as a true reference.
Typically, such requests for employment verification are referred to the Department of Human Resources. Listing someone as a reference is a completely different matter. If not explicitly understood that you are asking the individual to serve as a reference, their best option is to consider the request simply one of employment verification.
Generally, references are not contacted until after an individual is interviewed and “short-listed” for a job. After such an interview, contact your references and let them know to expect contact from the potential employer. Provide the reference with basic information about the job so they can adequately speak to your abilities for the position. Also, supply the potential employer with the best form of contact for the reference, and note if they will have restricted access for a period of time such as being on sabbatical, out of the country, etc. Again, staying in touch with your references lets them know that you are take the process seriously which assures they will as well.