December 26, 2012

Letters of Reference

There has been a lot of talk at the end of the term about graduate school applications and deadlines. And, once again, I'm on a search committee for a faculty position, so I'm reading lots of applications, including letters of reference. They can make a quick impression on hiring or admissions committees. When you read several letters of reference in a row, you start hearing the flat form letters from someone who doesn't know the applicant very well (or didn't take time to write the letter) and the detailed letters that give you the impression that the writer really knows and likes the person for whom they're writing the letter.

If you happen to be reading this and thinking this isn't relevant for you right now, reconsider. It's better to think about this ahead of time, so you can make your life easier. And maybe more importantly [and a bit selfishly in my case], you can make it easier for the people who will be writing your letters of reference. [Making it easier for your writers will ultimately help you by the way.] If you haven't thought about the process from the letter writer's perspective, it is an extra chore. It's an enjoyable one when we are excited about you getting a new job or going to graduate school and have positive things to report. It is a dreary, frustrating chore when people don't supply us with enough information and we don't have much positive to say about you. Either way, it still has a deadline and requires work. Consider the following points when you ask someone to write you your next letter of reference.

1. Time
Please make sure you give us enough time to write the letter. Ask 2-3 weeks ahead of time. If you need a faster turn around time it should be an extenuating circumstance.

2.  Where is the Letter Going & How?
Make sure it is clear to whom the letter should be sent and how it should be sent. These days some recommendations get uploaded to a website that stores the reference letters (as for some med school programs). Some letters should be sent to a person or committee via email or by regular mail. Make sure your reference writer knows the specifics. If the letter needs to be mailed, please make sure to leave an addressed and stamped envelope for the person writing your letter.

3.  Info About the Job or Grad Program
Provide your letter writer with information about the job or graduate school. Often you can just email a link to the job posting or the appropriate page for a graduate school application. This is really important. Your writer should be trying to reflect how you match the qualifications and mission.

4.  Info About You & Why You Want It
Provide your letter writer with why you want the job (or admission into that grad school program) and why you think you're appropriate for it. If you're applying to graduate school, you can share your admission's essay with your letter writer. This allows the writer to explain how you're a good fit and reinforce any points that you want to make about your candidacy. This is especially important if we haven't seen you for a few years and you've had some work or volunteering experience that we are unaware of that makes you more qualified for the job.

5. Judicious Reminders
It is okay to send a reminder or a thank-you-note/reminder hybrid to your letter writer. Do not send the note three days after you give your letter writer the materials. Instead, wait until a week or so before the deadline. You can send a "thank you for writing the letter - I'm really excited about the job (grad school program)" note that functions as a reminder for them to get the reference letter in the mail. Frequent and early reminders irritate.

6. Stay in Touch!
Let us know if you get the job or decide on a graduate program! We definitely want to know!

Four Additional Points:

Sometimes, especially in the case of job applications, the employer wants references rather than reference letters. For a reference, they call us and ask a set of prepared questions. In this case, you should still let the people you choose as reference know about the job and why you're a good fit for it, as well as who will be calling.

Did you know most Graduate School Reference Forms have a line on them that you sign indicating you sign away your rights to read the letter. This allows the letter writer to be honest without fear that you will see what they say. You don't have to sign it. [Of course, no letter writer is required to write one either.]

This next point is important and requires you to be honest with yourself. What does your letter writer have to say about you? If you're not sure, you may want to ask yourself if this person should be writing you a letter. Since I'm usually writing a letter as someone's current or former professor at a small school, I can usually comment on their behavior and demeanor in the classroom, how well they work in groups, punctuality and work ethic, and any other campus work that I'm aware of, such as volunteering or being involved with student organizations. So if you're someone who is always 15 minutes late for class or always has a reason why their work is late what does that say to a potential employer? If I've asked why your work always looks like you've completed it five minutes before class how will that look to a graduate school committee? On the other hand, if you came into college unsteady or lacking motivation [and your transcripts shows it] and then you pull it together in your early junior year - that looks good.