“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
II Corinthians 2:1-3
As a faculty member, I get several requests each semester for letters of recommendation. I would like to share several pointers about approaching folks for letters of recommendation in general to save you some headaches and embarrassment, and to give you a higher chance of getting the kind of letter you want.
1) Make sure you know the recommender, and they know YOU.
If you have an instructor that you like and respect, and usually in whose class you did well, be sure to visit them in their office hours and get to know them. The visits do not have to be long, nor every week, but you want face time. After that term is over, still visit them from time to time, again, briefly. It is helpful to ask them while you’re still in their class if they would be willing to be a reference down the road. When you submit the request, make sure they know for what position, degree, etc you are applying, why, and why they would be an appropriate recommender for that application.
2) Stay in touch with the recommender, even after they write your letter.
Don’t be a hit-and-run recommendee. You want references with whom you have a relationship, not a one-letter-stand.
3) BE SURE to tell them by when you need/want the letter.
Most people prioritize by crisis level. Let them know how to prioritize your request. Requests without a deadline drop to the bottom of the pile faster than a lead balloon. Give at LEAST two weeks’ notice if all possible. Don’t bug them, but it is appropriate to send ONE reminder email a week before the deadline if they haven’t responded.
4) Let them know ahead of time if it is a letter, a check form, or both, and whether it is online or by snail mail or if you will pick it up.
This helps them figure out how long it will take to do the recommendation and how long ahead of the deadline they need to do it. Keep in mind that many of the forms ask them to rank you in the “Bottom 50%, next highest 10%, next 10%, next 10%, next 5%, Top 5%” or something like that in various categories, such as maturity, creativity, intelligence, and so on. Read and be familiar with the form. Consider how you think they will fill it out about YOU. If you have concerns, discuss it with them, but not in a way that asks them how they’d fill it out. Make sure they have a basis for comparison on the relevant areas, especially if you don’t have the highest grade in the class. Help them to help you.
5) If by snail mail, give them a stamped, pre-addressed envelope.
6) Give them an updated resume/CV and a copy of any personal statements/essays, etc.
Not all will want it, but I find it helpful to write a more well-rounded letter.
7) Give them a proper internal address, so they can format the letter properly without having to hunt down the information. Include a person’s name (who will receive the letter ultimately) if you have it.
8) Let the recommender know how your applications turn out when you hear back.
This helps them to know that you remember their assistance and how helpful (or not) it was. Again, you hopefully have some sort of relationship with them; feedback and updates are a natural part of this.
9) A brief thank you note is appropriate.
This should be a no-brainer. These days email is acceptable, but a handwritten note still stands out, especially if you may need more in the future.
10) Develop a list of 5-10 people to use as references and spread your requests around.
References are in the position they are because they generally work hard and so are busy. While they may genuinely want to help you, every request is ‘one more thing’ on their plate, so not asking them for a bunch at once or one every few months is muchly appreciated. Also, determine which references are best for a phone call by the application body, which are good for letters, and so on.
While writing such letters is part of our job, these are some fairly simple things that can help you get the best possible letter out of us.
This is only a partial list off the top of my head. I invite readers to add their own nuggets!