Letters of Recommendation: Who and How to Ask

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Letters of recommendation are pretty much universal in the academic world. We’re asked for them when applying to grad school or looking for a job. Typically, letters of recommendation come from professors, supervisors, or mentors, and are meant to be a testament to your qualifications and character. A strong letter of recommendation can sometimes make all the difference in your application. This can help provide insight into your career goals, motivations, previous experience, and fit for the position.

Who can you ask for a letter of recommendation?

Professors

I see a lot of grad school applicants hoping for a letter of recommendation from a well-known professor or researcher. While name recognition can mean something, the prestige of the person doesn’t matter nearly as much as personal connections. It’s more important to pick someone who really knows you and can speak to your talents. 

Consider whether you’ve spoken personally to the professor or if you just got a good grade in their class. Keep in mind, if you do ask someone who doesn’t know you well, they may ask you for more information or ask that you write the letter of recommendation yourself. Professors are busy people, and sometimes won’t have the time to dedicate to writing a letter for a student who they don’t recognize.

Research Advisors

Research advisors can be a great resource for letters of recommendation since you tend to work with them more closely. They can speak to your work ethic and research abilities, which is paramount when applying to STEM-related graduate school programs. While you work with other people in the lab, such as Ph.D. students and postdocs, having a letter from the professor in charge of the research can be important.

Bosses/Managers

Now, this somewhat depends on your job. If you’re working on the side as a barista, your boss may not be able to speak to the right skill set. On the other hand, if you’ve worked somewhere for a long time, a letter of recommendation from your boss may demonstrate work ethic, responsibility, loyalty, etc. Of course, if your job is related to what you’re trying to apply to, it’s a great idea to ask your boss.

How do you ask for a letter of recommendation?

First things first, be polite! Whoever you’re asking is probably a busy person with a full e-mail inbox. Sometimes, it can take a while to get a response. I personally follow the “three e-mail rule”. This includes the original e-mail and two follow-up e-mails. If you’re still not getting a response after the third e-mail, it may not be worth your time. This can indicate how that person will communicate with you in the future and may lead to some last-minute stress.

If they ask you for more information about yourself before writing the letter, the professor may not know you well enough to truly attest to your skills. If they ask you to write your own letter of recommendation, this could actually be better, since you’ll have more control over the focus of the letter. This may also happen if you know the professor well and they simply don’t have enough time.

Afterward, make sure to show your appreciation! Not everyone will have the financial means to thank their references with a gift. This is perfectly fine, just make sure to thoroughly thank the person! Otherwise, a small gift, like a $10 coffee shop gift card, can be a good way to show your appreciation.

Finally, try to keep in contact! While you’re already on your way to applying for grad school or your next job, you may need to use them as a reference again in the future. Your reference will also love to hear when you get in or get hired! It’s good to keep these connections, as you never know how they could help you in the future.

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