Friday, March 12, 2010

Communications Tip: Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

You’ve completed your application essay, ordered your transcripts, and drafted your cover letter; now you need to secure that crucial letter of recommendation. The manner in which you compose your request will influence its effectiveness. Lara Polansky (MESM 2009) compiled the following guidelines for writing position-winning requests:
1. Be concise: Professors/employers are inundated with emails and likely have limited time to read/respond to requests; incorporate the key details in as few words as possible.

2. Include a short description of the fellowship/internship/program: This will aid your recommender in writing a letter geared toward the specific opportunity for which you are applying.

3. Provide suggestions: You know what it takes to obtain the award/position. Help your recommender understand this and, thus, incorporate this information in his/her letter, by suggesting subjects to emphasize. You may also want to guide your recommender towards a discussion of experiences exemplifying your unique attributes that differentiate you from other applicants.

4. List the desired applicant qualities as specified by the program: Your letter of recommendation will be most effective if your recommender demonstrates how your characteristics align with those the program is seeking in an applicant.

5. Attach your statement of purpose (or equivalent) and resume: Although your recommender is likely familiar with your academic and professional experiences, it is often helpful to provide these detailed summaries of goals and accomplishments. This will help your recommender to be as specific as possible in his/her letter.

6. Format your message: Use of underlining and bullets will help direct the reader to the most important parts of your request.

7. Highlight the deadline: It is important that your recommender know the time frame of the request.

Bren faculty contributed the following recommendations to strengthen your requests:
--Be timely: Many times faculty get requests at the last minute. Whenever possible, provide a minimum of two weeks' notice.
--Letters need a full address (i.e., letter heading) ready for copying and pasting, as well as bulleted descriptions of the proposed study or work, if the letter concerns a specific project.
--If the letter has to be sent by mail, provide an addressed envelope for the recommender.
--Provide the web address of the fellowship opportunity but DON'T expect the recommender to weed through the detailed application. Tell him/ her exactly what is required -- e.g., points stressed in the fellowship application instructions, how the letter is to be sent (email or mail), exact address, number of copies, etc.
--Send an email first, asking the person if they are willing to be a recommender and state the deadline. This gives them an "out" and does not make them feel like you presume they are willing to write one. If they say they don't have time, respect that and move on. If they do have time, followup with an email to provide exactly what they need. Try to provide all information in a single e-mail to save the recommender time and to avoid important information getting buried in multiple messages.
--Offer to draft the letter (or at least an outline) for the recommender.
--Ask for letters from faculty who know you well. Often, faculty receive requests from students who took a large course and never spoke with them, either in class or outside of class. There is no value to a generic letter which does not highlight your achievements and qualities. If you want a professor to know more about you than just the grade you received, try to stand out in class by asking questions, participating in research activities, and doing exemplary work.

The bottom line is, be considerate of your letter writer. The more time you put into preparing your letter request, the less time your letter writer needs to spend requesting additional information.

Thank you to the faculty who sent their advice and suggestions!
--Monica Bulger

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