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Last Revised June 22, 2000
How important are letters of recommendation?
Letters of recommendation are extremely important. Often they can determine whether or not you get the position that you desire. It is clearly worth a little extra effort to obtain the best possible recommendations.
Who should I ask for letters of recommendation?
Obviously you should ask for letters of recommendation from faculty who know you and have a favorable impression of your work. Ideally, you would select an individual who has talked to you on a number of occasions and gave you A grades in all the courses you have taken with him or her. Realistically, you should look for the best combination of these characteristics. If you have only obtained a B in a course, but you feel that the professor knows you quite well, this may be a better choice than a professor who gave you an A but doesn't know you at all.
Try to develop possible sources of recommendations long before they are needed. If one of your teachers seems willing to chat with students before or after class, take advantage of the opportunity. It's not only good politics; you may also learn something valuable in the process. Be sure to get to know your advisor well. It may seem unnecessary to talk to him or her about your academic plans, but the advisor is often a source of good suggestions and can be an excellent source of recommendations.
Once I have identified the faculty I would like to write letters for me, how should I ask for a letter?
This is a serious business, so treat it as though you understood that. Don't ask the professor for a recommendation when you happen to meet walking down the hall. Ask if you can make an appointment to discuss your plans and also request a recommendation. Arrive at the appointment with a sheet of paper that requests the recommendation in writing and includes the dates of all the courses you have taken with this individual. Remember that a faculty member deals with hundreds of students every year, and the easier you make it for him or her to find your records the more professional you will look.
Sometimes you may write to a faculty member several years after you have graduated to ask for a letter. If possible, try to include something special about yourself that will refresh a faded memory. If you were the student who was the class photographer, and so usually appeared with a camera around your neck, this may help to identify you. In general, the harder a faculty member has to work to remember who you are, the less enthusiastic the recommendation will be.
Go into your interview prepared to discuss your career plans. Hopefully you have prepared for this meeting by discussing your plans earlier with this individual. If not, do it now. Try to state clearly why you are pursuing your career direction. Anything that you can say that will make you stand out as an individual may help to improve the letter that this person will write. Sometimes, your statements from this session may be quoted verbatim in the resulting letter.
If the professor seems unwilling to write a letter for you, don't push the issue; thank them for their time and go find someone else. A half-hearted letter of recommendation can do too much damage for you to take the risk of using someone who is not enthusiastic about being your reference!
If you have any special information that you wish the professor to provide in the letter, this is the time to ask. For example, you might remind the professor of some special project you did that is related to the position that you are applying for. Perhaps you know that you received the highest B grade given when you took the course. You might remind the professor of that by suggesting that you wish that you had worked just a little harder in the course so that you could have received the higher grade. If the professor knows that your illness or personal problems caused your grades to be low during a short period, you might ask if he or she can mention this in the letter.
What about giving the names of faculty as references on applications?
Normally, you should ask a professor before using his or her name. When that isn't possible, be sure to notify them immediately that you have used them as a reference. This is good professional manners, but that isn't the only reason. If a potential employer calls the faculty member and the faculty member doesn't remember you, you have seriously damaged your chances of getting the job.
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