When applying for a job or to graduate school, strong references and letters of recommendation are important tools that can help set you apart from other candidates. Keep these points in mind when asking for a reference or letter.
Choose the Right Reference
A good reference: A professor in whose class you earned a good grade or an employer who has commented positively about your work.
A great reference: In addition to the above, they can comment on your personality and passions.
Consider any Professor:
who has seen your best academic work
with whom you've participated in a research project (i.e. laboratory work)
that you engaged with in a quarter-long special topics project
who you visited during their office hours
with whom you still communicate
Consider any Employer:
where you received promotions
where you completed any special projects
where you can qualify or quantify your contribution to the organization
that you left the organization on good terms
with whom you still communicate
Letters of Recommendation
Provide Materials for your Reference
Just asking your reference to write you a letter of recommendation is not enough, and your letter-and consequently your chances of getting the job or grad school you want-will suffer if you do not follow through. You need to give your recommender all the tools he or she needs to write an effective, compelling, and close letter.
Give your recommender the following items:
• A description of the scholarship/position/graduate program for which you are applying
• Exact wording of what should be covered in the letter - skills, qualifications and accomplishments to be highlighted
• List of specific, relevant experience: class projects, research, papers and grades for faculty; responsibilities and accomplishments for supervisors
• Resume, cover letter or personal statement used to apply
• Deadline and specific submission instructions or forms
• Name and address of letter recipient and a stamped addressed envelope (without your return address with room for the recommender to put his/her return address) for submission
• Communicate via one email trail
• Be timely and responsive to additional information requests from your reference
• Show thanks!
• Keep in touch – let you recommender know the status of your application
Some of these items can also be provided electronically rather than on paper; it's best to ask what your recommender prefers.
Good letters can take time to write, revise, and polish. Give your recommender:
4 weeks MINIMUM to write a letter
1-2 weeks MINIMUM for subsequent letters
Indicate that you will need multiple letters
Leave Yourself Options
Make sure you ask in a way that asks for a strong and positive letter and gives the person you are asking an easy way to say no. Giving an out will save them from having to force through a letter they aren't excited about, and saves you from receiving a mediocre recommendation letter. It also preserves unhurt feelings on both sides.
Start Asking NOW!
Ask for a letter of recommendation as soon as you feel that you have rapport with a recommender, even if you do not need one at that moment. A fresher letter is a better letter, and you will have it in hand when you do need it.
Send a sincere thank you note; remember that your recommender took time from their busy life to do you a big favor.
Also, let your reference know when you hear about your application, whether or not you got the position or entry into the program. This will let the recommender feel like they are participating in your future, and will help her/him gauge future letters for you and other students.