A WORD ABOUT LETTERS OF REFERENCE
Dr. Gavin T. Richardson , Union University
Good reference letters are crucial for getting a job, earning a scholarship, and gaining admission to graduate school. You begin the process of securing good references by making sure that your professors will have something nice to say about you when the crucial time comes. This process begins the moment you set foot on campus. “Sucking up” is not the goal here; rather, a conscientious, serious, and humble approach to your classwork and thesis writing is the key to securing a good letter of reference. And you know that campus job you’re grossly underpaid for? Its real value may come in the opportunity to secure glowing references from those you work for. Some further tips:
Ask a professor who really knows your work to write your letter. In some cases the professional status of the professor may trump familiarity, but in most cases it’s better to have a detailed letter from a professor who can speak concretely about your abilities than a generic letter from a superstar. And note that some professors may have a hard time writing a reference for you if you earned lower than a B in their class, unless some extraordinary circumstance obtains.
Request your letter of reference as soon as you know you’ll need one and clearly communicate its purpose and the deadline. Give your professors at least two weeks’ notice, if not more. Most students have no idea how long a professor spends on a good letter (in my case often an hour or more), and the requests often come at busy times (e.g., semester’s end). Courtesy in this regard is essential. Be prepared to send a brief, polite reminder of the deadline, if necessary, a week before the reference is due.
When requesting a letter of reference, remind the professor of the classes you had with him/her, the semester and year, and the grade (if it was a good one). Often this kind of information is specifically solicited by the institution or program requiring the letter. Also offer to attach an example of your best work from his/her class, such as an especially strong paper or poem. This attachment will allow your professor to say something concrete about your work. There’s also no shame in briefly highlighting some of the strengths/achievements in your academic career.
If the letter of reference is not to be submitted online, be sure to attach any supplemental evaluation forms which are to accompany the letter, along with addressed and stamped envelopes. Indeed, it is customary for the student to supply these. Make sure the envelopes are standard business size (i.e., long envelopes) and that the address does not look like a child wrote it. Consider printing out address labels. When applying to graduate schools, everything matters, even this.
Often on application forms you will see a statement asking whether you
do not waive your right to view
application materials, including the letter of reference.
This is your choice, of course, but generally speaking it is
customary to waive the right.
The sense is that by waiving the right to view the letter, you are
helping to protect the integrity of the recommendation process.
In other words, if I know that you won’t be reading my letter and I
still say nice things about you, I must really mean them.
On a related note, do not be offended if you ask a professor for
a letter of reference that you are to mail yourself, and you receive a
letter in a sealed envelope. This is customary;
indeed, I often give students their letters of reference in sealed envelopes
with my name written across the seal to indicate to the school that the
envelope has not been opened. Again, the idea here is to protect the
integrity of the recommendation, and the program/job to which you're
applying will think more of a recommendation delivered in this fashion, not
On a related note, do not be offended if you ask a professor for a letter of reference that you are to mail yourself, and you receive a letter in a sealed envelope. This is customary; indeed, I often give students their letters of reference in sealed envelopes with my name written across the seal to indicate to the school that the envelope has not been opened. Again, the idea here is to protect the integrity of the recommendation, and the program/job to which you're applying will think more of a recommendation delivered in this fashion, not less.
What if you’re not sure your recommender will write you a good letter? First of all, if you have to wonder about this possibility, then you might want to ask someone else for a letter. Alternately, you can politely and directly ask the professor if he/she can write you a confident reference, with the provision that if he or she cannot, you have other potential writers you are considering. Of course, you might want to tell the professor why you are starting this process with him/her. In short, nothing beats being polite, professional, and direct in these matters.
If you're simply asked in an application to list references, it's still a good idea to contact your professor and ask permission to list him/her as a reference. This gesture will also tip off the professor that he or she might be receiving a phone call regarding your application, and thus the professor will be better prepared to offer you a strong reference if contacted.
Once you've received a letter of reference, it's good form to write a thank-you note to your recommender. A brief hand-written note is preferred to email, though in my experience fewer than 20% of students make a follow up gesture of any kind once I've written their letter; thus I really remember the ones who do. I suspect that some students might be embarrassed that they did not get that scholarship or admission they were hoping for, and they fear they have "wasted" their professor's time. The truth is, most professors are simply curious to know the outcome of the applications they have played a role in, and they fully understand that applications are competitive and that not all applicants will score that big job, grad school admission, or scholarship. Plus, nearly all professors keep letters on file and consider that they might be used again with some modification. So by all means--win or lose--write a note of thanks. You simply can't go wrong by saying "Thank you," and on a more self-interested note, you never know when you may need a good word from that professor again.
Let me say that for all these caveats, the great majority of professors are delighted to write strong letters for fine students. Employment and admission to graduate schools are the fruits of our labor invested in you, and frankly we take pride when you do well. So work hard, be conscientious, and have no fear asking for letters when the time comes. Good luck!
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