Public Relations Tactics

How to Get that Glowing Letter of Recommendation

Publication Date: 9/2001

Source: SO01 Public Relations Tactics
Product Code: 6C-090120
Organization/Author/Firm: Julie K. Henderson, APR
Specialization(s): Career Development
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Will a stellar letter of recommendation guarantee you that dream job all on its own?

Probably not.

Are letters of recommendation effective?

Who knows?

What is certain is that employers keep demanding them, students keep requesting them, and professors keep writing them. Such letters remain a fact of life today, and probably every student will ask for one at some point in time.

The following are tips to make the process more rewarding for the requestor and less irritating for the requestee. They are based on two common tenets: common sense and common courtesy.

Common Sense

The more details about who needs the letter and why, the better. Letters for jobs, internships, scholarships and graduate school all differ markedly in content and tone. Saying “I need a letter of recommendation by tomorrow” is not at all helpful.

Provide any and all background materials you have available. Too much is better than too little. And that means “provide.” Do not tell your professor where to go for more information, such as looking on a Web site. Print a copy of the information for your professor and deliver it.

Oftentimes scholarships, assistantships, or exclusive seminars will include key words in the application form that an experienced faculty member can focus on. For example, if the application calls for displays of leadership, then your writer can emphasize that. If it asks for people who can contribute to the discussion, that’s different. Help your professor help you spotlight your strengths.

  • Information please. Most professors have contact with hundreds of students a year. Requests for recommendations come from them, and often from students from previous years, or even decades. Thus it is difficult to remember the specific accomplishments of each individual. Provide a resumé with each request, plus any other information that would be helpful.

  • No generics. Let’s assume it takes an hour to write a good letter of recommendation. If every student requests a generic letter (“Just to have in my files”), that translates into hundreds of hours of effort. Do not ask for a letter unless you have a purpose – or a very generous and understanding professor.

  • Use it or lose it. Here are two situations that are very irritating to a professor. A student asks for a letter, the letter is written, and then: 1) it is never picked up or 2) it is never used (“Oh, I decided not to apply for that”). If you do this, it’s probably better not to make a second request. Ever.

  • Why me? Take special care in deciding whom you will ask for a letter. Remember, you want this person to say nice things about you. Is there a reason why he or she should? For example, what kind of a student were you in class? Did you pay attention, add to the discussion, work hard… or did you sit in the back row, giggle and make witty comments under your breath? What do you expect a professor to say who has had this experience with you?

    If you have had a professor for fewer than two classes, do not ask him or her for a recommendation unless there are other mitigating circumstances (you worked together on a project, the professor was advisor to a group of which you were an officer). If the only professors who will agree to write a letter for you are those who do not know you very well, you might have a different problem. In the same sense, you do not want to ask for a letter from someone who gave you Cs, Ds, or Fs. A lukewarm letter is often worse than none at all.

Don’t expect Annie Sullivan. One letter will not work a miracle. Have realistic expectations. If you do not have the grades, internship, portfolio, or other assets to make you stand out, one letter from a professor is not going to turn that situation around.

Common Courtesy

  • Make life easy. Provide an envelope for returning the letter. If it has to be mailed directly to a third party, provide a stamped, self- addressed envelope. If you do not have time to do this, then the application cannot be very important to you, and surely is not important enough to take someone else’s time.

  • Don’t expect overnight delivery. Professors have other duties and the days of lolling around the office drinking coffee and thinking deep thoughts are long gone. Most have deadlines to meet every day, week, and month. Your request will have to fit into their schedule. Rule of thumb: Allow two weeks. But in any event, always include the date needed.

  • What happened? Let the writer know what happened. Did you get the job, the scholarship, the assistantship?

  • Thank you. Professors are not required in their job descriptions to provide letters of recommendation. No one ever got a promotion, a raise, or tenure because he or she wrote more letters, or even better letters, than anyone else. Also, some professors refuse all requests for letters of recommendation because of legal concerns.

    On the other hand, most professors do love to see a recent graduate get that first job or a worthy student get that national scholarship. They will honor your request for the same reason they became teachers, because they love to work with students.

    However, keep in mind that you are requesting a favor, and should view it as such, which means say “Please” and “Thank you.”