Asking (with Class) for Recommendation Letters

This summer, I was asked by several students for recommendation letters for jobs and other such opportunities. Each request resulted in a slightly different journey and I learned a lot from them all. I realized I need to come up with a policy for writing them, so I sent out word to all of my professor friends and did some research: there were a lot of horror stories and funny anecdotes. I could easily illustrate this essay with lots of eye-roll-inducing tales of badly mannered students and lazy professors, but I am taking a more positive approach: I am writing this essay for all of my former, current, and prospective students in hopes that I help you make better choices in this area. You are worth the effort, to a one.

One thing: I mention “class” in the title. I am simply referring to the fact that you can, right here and now, choose to treat the people around you with respect and thereby slowly sculpt your life’s trajectory. You can be circumspect and polite, convey how lovely a person you actually are, and pave the way to connect meaningfully with those who surround you. It is all too easy to be presumptuous or inadvertently rude if you only rush towards goals and forget that relationships are far more important in life. The job you seek today is fine and dandy, but honestly, the community you build around yourself will take care of you far better in the long run. Possessions and money are one thing–but to have a little class? Priceless.

The Value of a Recommendation Letter

Why do I write them?

Writing well-earned and beautifully crafted recommendation letters is part of how I work to create the world I want to live in. I want to be in the universe where you succeed for all the right reasons. This is not for my health or your glory, this is for the greater good. This is also why you need to help me do the very best job I can for you: it’s is bigger than the both of us.

Why do you need them?

You are not an isolated little meteor out in the ether: you have a history, a present, and a future. You affect others with your choices and actions and are a vital part of the communities you inhabit. The only true and meaningful relic of your swath though life is the impact you make in relation to other people. We references are here to convey your true quality for others who may be able to then take a chance on you. You need our testimonials to fill in the gaps in your resume that grades, purported achievements, and degrees just cannot cover.

What are they to an employer, anyway?

When an employer (or coordinator, or committee) puts out word of an opportunity, she may very well be deluged by applications. These will vary wildly in quality, but should provide enough information to do the initial sort and cull. Rec letters help identify the best candidates in later phases of selection: they will either distinguish you in a field of equally worthy competitors or take you down entirely. They are of subtle importance, but in times like this when there are a lot of people competing for the gig, that influence can tip the balance just enough to get you the job.

Ground Rules: Asking for a Recommendation Letter

RULE ONE:
Please do not assume that a rec from me is a given

A recommendation is not a right but a privilege—that we both earn, by the way.

Did I earn the privilege to write this letter?

  1. Did I make a difference in your learning of the subject? Did I help strengthen your resolve to dig deeper and excel?
  2. Was I a good teacher for you in that I was consistent, fair, and tough?
  3. Am I doing good work in the field you want to enter?
  4. Am I an appropriate choice to write this letter? Would my word be valuable to the people receiving it?
  5. Am I responsive and trustworthy? Will I actually get it done on time?

If I pass muster with the questions listed above, then I may be a good choice to write you a rec letter.

Did you earn the privilege to receive this letter?

  • Did you make a B or higher in my class? Did you make qualitative strides in my class that indicate deep learning?
    Grades are not always indicative of the progress you make. Let’s say you end up in a class in which you fail for a bit, but you make a heroic effort and bring that grade up to a C by the end of the semester. If you have really connected with the professor, you may have a relationship that would allow for a glowing rec. If you didn’t care enough to try in my class, do not waste your time or mine by asking for a rec I could not possibly give.
  • Have you maintained a professional relationship with me beyond the class(es) you took with me?
    That would ensure a much richer letter, filled with the small and telling details for which employers and selection committees really look. Besides, you really need to network with people doing quality work in your chosen field. I am one of those people, hopefully.
  • Have you kept me up-to-date on your research in a meaningful way?
    Please enlighten me if not, I will use this information gladly.

Be polite and thorough when you ask me to be a reference. Be the person you want me to think you are! The more you practice, the more of a reality it will become, I promise. When you realize that I may be a good candidate to write recs for you in the future, pull me aside and ask me if I’ll be willing to be your advocate well before you need one. Follow up at the end of the semester, check in every once in a while. Maintain a relationship with me, it makes the letter all the more meaningful. Do not ask me for a letter if you have given me little reason to recommend you heartily. I cannot lie about your abilities or accomplishments, that would render my word worthless.

RULE TWO:
One month’s notice is seriously preferred

I want to write a good letter, but I have many things on my plate. In order to slot in time to craft a worthy one, I need fair notice. Certainly, there will be times when an opportunity falls into your lap unexpectedly and you need a quick turnaround, but you need to be on top of the process 99% of the time.

RULE THREE:
Please do not use me as a reference without letting me know

I’d like to know each time I am to be a reference. If you give someone my name without telling me, I have no way of prepping. If he sends me a form to fill out with no warning and a tight deadline, I will not be able to say much of value on the fly. That will result in a low quality rec, and I may refuse the next time one of these surprises occur.

RULE FOUR:
Do the footwork because I can’t do it for you

  • Send me the job description. It is also helpful if you can send information about the hiring institution: culture, any relevant details that I can use to craft my writing about you working there
  • Research the person the letter is going to if at all possible: name, title, relationship with the role for which you are applying. Bonus points if you can look up their specialty or history as it is applicable to the situation.
  • Send me your peripherals: the letters you wrote, your portfolio, your resume–BEFORE you send them to the potential employer. I will do a quick read and alert you to any errors or possible issues. I want you to look the best you can so I don’t look like a chump recommending you, frankly.

I will not track this information down for you. Send it and I will absolutely use it for good.

RULE FIVE:
Do not expect to see the letter after it’s done

I need to be able to speak my mind. I will not send you a copy of what I write for your records. I will only send my letters directly to the employer or give you a sealed copy to send in your package. If it is to be a digital submission, I will only send non-editable PDFs of my letters (with my actual signature), unless there is another way I can send my letter directly to the employer. Remember, I do not write generic letters, they must be crafted each time for the specific purpose at hand so there is no use in your having one on file to use whenever.

I actually had one student try to “update” a rec letter I had sent to her inadvertently as a word doc. Never again. Another one decided I needed to really pump up my praise once he saw what I wrote. It made me unwilling to write him another… Actually, I haven’t, now that I think about it.

After the Letter Goes Out

Suggestion One:
Say Thank You

Your success is a part of my success and I am investing in our collective future with every word I write. I am working very hard to do all of this. Say thank you–in person if possible, or in a well-written email at the very least. Make some effort, have a little of the aforementioned class this world is so often lacking.

Suggestion Two:
Send an update so I know how your quest ended

If you get the job, great! Let me know! If you don’t, send word. Maybe we can do a quick postmortem and help you improve your materials and approach for the next go.

Beyond the Letter, There is You

Consider writing rec letters for your professors’ professional files as you go through your student career

Your words have power as well. If a professor has impressed you or made a difference in your life, offer to write a rec letter for his/her professional file. Having evidence of our impact as instructors and mentors is essential to our continued ascension in the academic ranks. This is not about you kissing butt, by the way–a fawning, ridiculous letter will be easy to spot (and will be worthless).  This is also not about writing a letter in exchange for a rec for you, either. If a prof ever makes that proposition, report him/her to the nearest authority as that is seriously bad behavior. When someone shows he has some class in how he treats you, take steps to make sure that person is able to continue doing so. This is about helping good people when the time is right, helping to build the world in which YOU want to live.


I am going to continue to refine this essay and policy into a downloadable checklist you may find useful. I would so appreciate your feedback, whether you are a student or a fellow educator. I am still developing my approach, so I will gladly consider your advise so I can make this the best it can be.