Letters of recommendation: a primer

It’s that time of year again. Summer is just a few months away (although it seems like an eternity) and you are starting to make plans: internships, jobs, special summer programs and, of course, study abroad.

Oh, wait! Many of these opportunities require letters of recommendation. Who do you ask? When do you ask them? What if they say “no” or don’t respond to your request at all? What is your responsibility after someone writes you a recommendation?

Requesting a letter of recommendation: WHO. If at all possible, be strategic about who you approach relevant to the opportunity. If you are applying to an academic program or for a merit scholarship (for example, the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities or the Fulbright Scholarship), you should seek out a faculty to provide your recommendation. If you are applying to an internship or job, someone who can comment on you in a professional setting (for example, a former supervisor) will best be able to provide the type of information that a future supervisor might find useful. Applying to a study abroad program or international exchange? Once again, a faculty would have the authority to attest to your academic preparation. However, anyone who has observed you in a similar situation (i.e. C21 faculty and staff) would also be suitable referees.

Requesting a letter of recommendation: HOW. You can certainly initiate the request with a personalized email. DO NOT have an application site send an automatic request prior to reaching out personally to your potential referee. Include in your email:

  • a reminder of how you know the potential referee (“I was a student in your Political Science 201 course last Autumn”),
  • a brief description of the opportunity that you are pursuing,
  • copies of your application materials (responses to the application prompts, a statement of purpose, resume, unofficial transcript, etc.) and,
  • an offer to meet in person.

Why provide these materials before gaining the person’s agreement to write a recommendation? Because it shows that you are serious about pursuing the opportunity and conscientious in providing the referee with information to make their job easier.

What if you don’t get a response? It is important that you demonstrate initiative by researching their office hours and showing up to discuss your request IN PERSON. Bring all of the materials mentioned in the bulleted list above. Or, try and catch a faculty before or after class and ask when a good time might be to meet.

Letters of Recommendation: WHEN. While a one week heads-up might seem like enough time to you, it is not. Academic personnel have incredibly busy schedules with teaching, research, committee service, mentoring graduate students, and other administrative responsibilities. Short notice will most likely end up with no response or a “Sorry, I won’t have the time to do this,” and you’ll be left scrambling to find someone else. At minimum, 2 – 3 weeks notice is both respectful and manageable on the part of the referee. If you are in a bind and are asking for a letter with little advance notice, be humble and be prepared for a negative response. It’s not personal.

Your Responsibilities after Receiving a Letter of Recommendation. It’s simple. Just two things:

  1. Thank the person for writing the letter. At minimum, an email would suffice. However, a handwritten note will be certain to leave a lasting impression (especially if you might request another letter in the future).
  2. Keep the referee informed of the outcome of your application. “I was accepted into the Neurological Surgery Summer Student Program thanks to your kind letter of recommendation!” “Unfortunately, I was not accepted into the Exploration Seminar in Rome this summer, but wanted to thank you for your support. I intend to apply again next year and hope that I might be able to approach you for another recommendation at that time.”

What have been your experiences with letters of recommendation? Do you have any additional helpful tips?

By Cynthia Caci
Cynthia Caci Associate Director, C21