How to Get the Perfect Recommendation Letter

Whether you’ve completed HC’s steps to land a summer internship , are looking into a part-time job at the mall, or are thinking about graduate school, it’s likely that you will need a letter of recommendation to complete your application. Figuring out who to ask and how to go about it may not be as simple as deciding whether or not you should splurge on a new Anthropologie dress, (easy answer: YES!), but HC has got your back! Here’s everything you need to know about how to get that perfect letter of recommendation:

Deciding Who to Ask

Who to ask for a recommendation depends on two things: what the recommendation is for and the relationship you have with the person you plan on asking. If you are applying for an academic venture like graduate or law school, asking for all professor recommendations may be the best route. “In that context, professors carry much more weight,” says Fred Burke, executive director of the Hofstra University Career Center. “You should be asking people who can speak to your credentials and have observed your performance.” Though you may be tempted to get the flashy titles of the Dean of your major or the President of your university, these people likely don’t know enough about you or haven’t witnessed your work ethic and charisma. So go for a professor you formed a bond with from a smaller, recent course that you excelled in. Burke also says that you can ask a TA or GA for a letter as long as he/she knows you well and can speak to your work.

Hofstra University sophomore and Broadcast Journalism Major Melanie Yates chose to ask a professor who taught a class similar to the theme of a scholarship she was applying for. “I picked a professor whose class I enjoyed and I knew would be able to say a couple of nice things about me,” she says. “It also helped that my scholarship tied into the class she taught.”

You may run into an issue if you have to ask a professor who teaches a large lecture, in which case it can be tough to form a very personal relationship with that professor. If that’s the case, Burke suggests that you start making relationships with your professors early on in your career, like in freshman and sophomore year. If you’ve found a professor who teaches one of your major classes enjoyable, make an impression! Be active in class and ask questions one-on-one to help him remember you. Once the class is over, keep in touch with occasional office visits or polite emails.

If you’re applying for a job, this is your chance to ask a past internship supervisor, mentor or employer. Burke says that this is a great opportunity to mix up your references, so use one from each internship or job if possible, to show that everyone has great things to say about you.

Make sure you ask someone who you made a connection with or left a lasting impression on. To stay in contact with past superiors, the experts at Ed2010 recommend that you send thank-you cards and occasional polite check-in emails. As mentioned earlier, this etiquette extends to past professors as well. Ed says, “With anyone you feel you’ve hit it off with, you should feel free to send occasional emails. Since the content of a check-in e-mail can be obnoxious, it’s important to show you’re not JUST interested in getting a job; you’re also interested in them!” If you’ve done any of these things already, you’ve found yourself a sufficient person to ask for a recommendation!

Asking

Burke recommends that you ask 2-3 weeks before the application deadline. Be prepared with adequate materials including an explanation of what you’re applying for, a résumé and cover letter, as well as a pre-stamped addressed envelope. Be polite by asking if they would feel comfortable writing you a letter; this way it will alleviate any awkward tension.

For example:

  • GOOD- “Hey Mr. Gyllenhaal, that was a great lecture. Do you have a moment? I’m currently in the process of applying to law school, and I was wondering if you would feel comfortable writing me a recommendation. I have all of the necessary materials you would need including a cover letter with me. I know how busy you are, so I would really appreciate it if you could do this favor for me!”
  • BAD- “Yo Mr. G, you graduated from Hofstra Law didn’t you? I think I wanna go to law school, write me a recommendation by tomorrow, will ya?"

Yeah… no. That last one is terrible. To avoid sounding like that, you can even write down what you want to say and practice. Ask during a time when the person isn’t overwhelmed and has a few moments to fully listen to what you’re saying, ideally in private. Melanie says she asked her professor after class and was told “yes” right away.

But remember, it isn’t always so simple. You may want to try asking via email: “Just make sure you ask permission, spell it all out for the writer and provide all of the information, what it is for, when it is due, where to send it etc.” says Burke.

Asking for a recommendation isn’t a guarantee, since no one is obligated to do you any favors. Kristin Benson, intern coordinator of The National Society of Leadership and Success works with college students each day and has experience writing recommendations for them.

“Don’t assume someone is going to write you a recommendation,” she says. “Ask politely, in person or through an email.” Benson says she was taken aback when a former intern practically told her to write her a recommendation, like in the “bad” example. This is not the way to go!

Lastly, be understanding if someone says no—a good recommendation takes time (especially if it’s personalized) and people might be busy. Thank them anyway, and take some time to find someone else to ask. It’s a good idea to have a list of people who could write for you in mind, so that you’re not stumped when the first person you ask turns you down. Once you’ve found someone to say yes, it will likely be a bit of a waiting game. Don’t be afraid to give them a friendly reminder if you don’t receive it within two weeks, but be careful so you don’t overwhelm them! Make sure to clearly let them know when the recommendation is due from the get-go, and then check in as that deadline approaches.

Follow-up

Depending on the recommender’s preference, you will have either a confidential or non-confidential letter. A confidential letter is one that you will never see, and Burke says that these letters carry more weight. Once your letter is complete, immediately send a thank you email. “I prefer email for thank you notes, they’re very professional,” he says. Also make sure you’re using a professional address, not “[email protected]” from seventh grade! Sending a handwritten thank you note via snail mail may also do the trick. “Always write a handwritten thank you note to that person thanking them for their time,” Benson advises. If it’s possible to do both without over-doing it, then go for it.

Networking and learning proper etiquette with your superiors is a critical tool to have in today’s workplace. It shows that you are not only courteous, but gracious as well. Good luck with your application!

Sources:
Fred Burke, Executive Director of the Hofstra University Career Center
Kristin Benson, Intern Coordinator for The National Society of Leadership and Success
Melanie Yates, Sophomore Hofstra University Broadcast Journalism major
Ed2010.com, http://www.ed2010.com/2009/08/top-5-things-do-after-internship and http://www.ed2010.com/advice/asked/2007/11/how-do-i-keep-touch-editors