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28 Aug How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for Grad School

Asking for a letter of recommendation can be unnerving. You are most likely asking someone who you respect a great deal, to do something for you. Remember these tips and it will be easier.

First of all, keep in mind that the person that you are asking is probably flattered on some level. Depending on their personality, they will either be very gracious or at the minimum they will not be insulted, after all you had many people to ask and you chose them.

Who should you ask for a letter of recommendation?

The most important factor is how well do you know this person? Have you spent enough time around this person for them to know you and know how you act under pressure? More specifically, what qualities do you possess that lend themselves to the field you are trying to study. A person applying to graduate school as a social worker does not want someone who will write a letter that indicates that you are ‘very analytical and efficient.’

Instead, if you are applying to an MBA program you would want a person who has experience in business management and knows you well enough to say that you are a great multi-tasking person who doesn’t lose the big picture. It’s great to get a letter of recommendation from the President of the United States, however if all it says is “I know Bob” it probably will not carry as much weight as your former boss who says, “in my 25 years as director of operations, I have never had an intern who worked with subordinates better than Bob.”

Once you have chosen the people you are going to ask for letters, approach them personally or over the phone, an email here is not appropriate, you are asking this busy person to do something for you, the least you can do is leave a voicemail for her and explain that you were hoping to get a letter of recommendation.

The Key to Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

The key to asking for a letter of recommendation is making it as easy as possible for the person you are asking. I always offered to prepare a rough draft for them. The conversation would go something like this…’hello Professor Purvis, thanks for returning my call. You may not be aware of this, but I am applying for a post-doctoral fellowship and I wanted to check with you and make sure it would be all right if I listed you as a reference and if I could get a letter of recommendation from you. I always enjoyed your classes and I think that helped me put in some of my best work, would you be willing to do that for me? I know your busy, so I have prepared a draft letter, I can email it to you and you can make any changes you would like and of course your free to prepare your own letter.’

Tip: ask more people than you need, for example if you are trying to get three letters of recommendation, then ask five different people. With more options you can chose the top three letters to submit. The person writing the letter of recommendation will never know that you did not submit their letter.

Provide a good template

When someone agrees to write a letter of recommendation, and agrees to look at a draft that you are going to send them, you will want a great template for them to work from. The best letters of recommendation include specific instances of conduct and quantifiable data. What does that mean? Here is an example ‘Bill worked for me in the summer of 2005, while he was here, he handled more than ten important projects for me. His attention to detail and work ethic allowed him to exceed my expectations. Bill’s projects were more thorough and yielded 10% better results than the other interns.’

Make sure you do not provide a draft that says something like ‘Bill is a good kid, he was never late.’ Obviously, that is not going to impact the reader like the previous example. Of course, whatever you provide as a draft has to be true, so you can’t fabricate facts but to the extent you have the information available you should use it.

When someone replies with a finished letter of recommendation it is a good idea to send a small thank you card, by way of regular snail mail indicating that you appreciate their time and the letter of recommendation. If you are approved for the position you were applying for you should also update the person about the approval and thank them again. This only applies to situations where you were approved, you would never mention that you were not approved unless you are specifically asked if you were approved for the program or school, by someone who agreed to write a letter of recommendation.

In review

It will be easier and more effective to ask for a letter of recommendation if you remember that it is usually flattering to the person you are asking. Your going to make it as easy as possible by offering to prepare a draft letter for them to edit. You should ask more people than you need or want letters from. The draft letter you provide will have the specific information such as the address and position you are applying for and it should include specific, quantifiable information. Once you have the letter of recommendation you should follow up with a hand written note of appreciation and update them if you are approved or accepted into the program.

Daniel K Martin

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