Letters of recommendation play an important role in landing that dream job - or any job, for that matter. However, many college students and recent graduates don't have a lot of work experience and aren't sure whom to ask for a recommendation. Often enough, you don't need to look any further than your classrooms (or alma mater if you've already graduated).
Professors can be a great source for letters of recommendation. Writing professional and academic references is part of their job, and most of them want to see their students succeed. However, it's not a good idea to ask just anybody. You want to choose professors wisely and approach them tactfully. Here's a guide to asking your professors for a recommendation - and getting the best possible letter.
Find the Right Person
Don't just pick professors at random. Choose someone who knows you and your work well and who meets some of the following criteria:
- The prof knows you by name and face
- You and the prof have good rapport
- You got an A or B in the prof's course(s)
- You stood out as an exceptional student in the prof's class
- You've worked with the prof outside the classroom in some capacity
If you have a thesis advisor or professor you've worked with on an independent study or research project, that's usually your best bet for getting an outstanding reference.
If you're still in school and have at least one or two terms left, you can be proactive about forming relationships that lead to great references. Here are a few strategies:
- Gain visibility in class by asking questions, participating in discussions, and showing enthusiasm
- Be a leader in class by helping other students or taking the lead on group projects
- Give extra effort and thoughtfulness to your assignments
- Visit your prof during office hours to discuss the material and show interest
- Participate in a thesis program, independent study course, or research project that has you working more closely with your prospective recommendation writer(s)
Hone Your Approach
Approaching your professor can be a little scary, but there are a few things to keep in mind that can make it easier.
- Be timely. Give your professor as much time as possible to write the letter (3-6 weeks in advance is best).
- Be personal. There's debate over whether asking in person or by email is better, and either is probably OK. However, if you can easily get to campus, it may be best to ask in person in order to refresh your connection with the prof. Find out when his or her office hours are, and go then. If you send an email, there's the risk that it can be overlooked or forgotten. You'll need to follow up if you don't hear back within a few days. Whether you choose an in-person or email request, keep the tone of your interaction friendly and professional.
- Be confident. Again, writing letters is part of a professor's job - so approach them confidently but politely. It's rare for a prof to turn down a request for a letter. However, you don't just want to ask for a recommendation - you want to ask for a strong recommendation. Be prepared for a 'no' just in case, and handle it gracefully. Thank them for their consideration, and move on to your next choice.
- Be thorough. To make the process smoother, give your professors as much information as possible. Remember, the less work your professors have to do, the more likely they are to write you a letter.
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Organize Your Materials
Before you approach your professor, get the following materials together:
- Your resume
- A job description, if possible
- Papers you've written in the prof's class, if applicable
- An addressed and stamped envelope
Then write a letter (or email, if you're going that route) that gives the following:
- The employer and position
- A statement about why you want the job and why you're a great match
- A list of the skills, experience, or accomplishments you'd like the prof to highlight
- Any special instructions
- A list of inclusions or attachments
- An offer to draft a letter yourself (some professors prefer this, others don't)
If you're going in person, paper clip everything together and give it to your prof in a large envelope. If you're sending your request by email, write the letter in the body of the email and attach your documents (or email the letter only and then follow up by sending your documents by snail mail). Depending on your relationship, you might want to send a quick email asking whether the person can give you a strong recommendation - and then (assuming you get a yes) send a longer letter and your supporting materials.
Waive Your Rights
If you're given the option to waive the right to read your letters of recommendation, do so. Also tell your professors you've done so. Your potential employer may think the letter is more credible if you've waived your right to read it. Also, the person writing the recommendation may feel more comfortable if you're not going to see it.
Professors are very busy people. It's a good idea to send them polite reminders in moderation. Some profs like to have access to a shared Google spreadsheet that lists employers and deadlines (if there's more than one). That way, they can check off which letters are complete, and you can easily track which letters have gone out. This is something you can offer to create.
It's essential to thank everyone who's written you a recommendation. Send a thank you note as soon as you know the letter's gone out, and remember to let them know whether you end up with the job. This is an often overlooked step, and an important one. When someone's invested their time and energy in you, they want to know the outcome. It also gives your profs the opportunity to congratulate you, or prepare themselves to write another letter.
By asking for a letter, you're being proactive about your career and your future. So go forth, be confident, and get that recommendation!