Letters of recommendations are strange in that we all know what they are, but save for the people who are actually using them to evaluate a candidate, what happens with the letter is shrouded in mystery. Can a stellar recommendation letter make up for a less-than-stellar transcript? Are you going to be removed from consideration because your recommender didn't make you sound like Captain Awesome? It all depends—but as long as these letters are required for admissions processes and grants and other things, we'll shed some light on how to ask for (and/or write) a letter of recommendation.
Whether you're on the asking end or the writing end, there are some basic tips and rules that should be followed. (Why should you trust me? Because I've asked for letters and written letters and things have worked out pretty well for all involved parties.)
Asking for a letter of recommendation:
- Choose the right person to recommend you: An accurate, sincere recommendation from someone who is familiar with your work is much more valuable than a stock recommendation from someone who is well-known. If you're applying for a position at an architecture firm and you interned at OMA for 6 months and sat in a room with Rem Koolhaas one time, he is not the person to ask. (He's not going to say yes either, so save yourself from being turned down). Ask someone who can attest to all that you invested in your professional endeavors. Sure, we tend to value the opinions of the "famous," but change starts right here.
- Give your recommender plenty of time: No one likes to work under pressure, so make sure you line up your recommenders ahead of time and also ensure that you are giving them enough time to craft a letter that will get you noticed. Most people who have been asked for recommendations work off of a general template; the more time you allow, the less "template-y" and more personal your recommendation will be.
- Don't expect to see the recommendation: While you should bank on the fact that the recommender that you've chosen will write a glowing review of yourself and your achievements, you may not ever see the recommendation— and that's ok. After all, in order to keep recommenders honest and for the process to be worth a damn, there are sometimes going to be recommendation letters that aren't so… nice? Plus, most university recommendation systems are going to ask you to waive your right to see the letter.
- Be aware of the level of your recommender's tech-savvy: Make sure to do your homework so that your recommender is fully aware of the way in which they need to submit their letter. Most universities have streamlined the process; you'd have to be exceptionally technology-challenged to not be able to follow instructions. But some fellowships and grants follow less-obvious rules for submitting letters. Just make sure that all the bases are covered during your request. It's not just about writing the letter but also about getting the letter to its intended destination.
- Don't sound so desperate that the recommender won't be able to say no: Maybe the recommender needs to say no because there just isn't enough time to write you a respectable letter of recommendation, but won't because your request comes off like some dying wish. Or maybe your chosen recommender has nothing to say about you. It's good to give them a way out.
- Ask in person or via written request?: This is going to require a bit of social savvy but depending on your personality and the personality of the recommender, an in-person request may be either awkward or rewarding. It essentially comes down to this—if you're fairly certain that this person will write you a glowing recommendation, go ahead and ask them in person; they will be pleased to know that you would like him/her to comment on their work. But whether you ask in-person or decide not to YOU MUST put your request in writing. It's 2017. There's texts and Facebook messages and Instagram and god knows how many ways to get in touch with people. Get an email address and set up some sort of automatic reminder so that you can re-confirm the status of your letter as the deadline approaches. (I hear you asking…but what if my professor/mentor/sensei doesn't use computers or the internet? If this is the case, make sure you get verbal confirmation and try to get the information of an assistant or someone who works for said sensei so that he/she can be guided through the process and deadline).
Writing a letter of recommendation:
- I've been asked to write a letter of recommendation and I have no idea what I'm doing: The last time you wrote a "letter" was in 1998 during your 8th grade English class? Or did you swear off writing once your diploma was in your sweaty, greedy little paws? Fear not. Letters are actually really easy to write because they are really close to speech. So, the first piece of advice is, don't say no because you think you're a sh*tty writer or you think that the process is going to be a hassle. Remember, someone wrote you a recommendation letter, so keep the circle of life in bloom.
- Start with a list: You may be able to start at "Dear" and end with "Sincerely" without any kind of hesitation or pause but most normal people stare at a blank document with a mixed sense of panic attack and "ughhh." Don't worry, start with bullet points. What do you want the school/grant committee/prospective employer to know about this candidate? Focus on what makes the candidate exceptional. Platitudes about being a good employee won't get anyone noticed. Make sure to include specific projects or examples in your letter. Your reader will say, "Oh wow, he/she must really know Billy because he/she has great recall of that time Billy went above and beyond." Got it?
- Include examples, stories, anecdotes and details: Yes, I said this in the above paragraph but I'm going to say it again because 80% of letter-writers are just going to google "recommendation letter template" and swap out the name. Pretend you are writing a letter to your dear granny and you want to tell her about that time that your student/employee really made you proud.
- Write first. Edit later. This advice applies to 100% of writing but I'm assuming you're here because you need to write a letter of recommendation and you need words of encouragement. Just put it all out there and then organize it. Bonus points if you have a willing and able friend who will take a look at the letter before you send it out.
- Don't Google "architecture recommendation letter" and use one of the templates you find on some SEO-optimized website: This is probably the hardest thing to do—to be original in your letter. We don't want to let down the people who have asked us to write a letter, but if you're a manager in your early 30s why on earth should your letter read (or look) like a recommendation from a dude/dudette who went to college in the 70s?! Original content is always going to stand out over regurgitated boilerplate. Do yourself and your mentee a favor and just write that letter to grandma (as I explained in point number 2).
- If you're going to say no, be honest: It's going to happen sometimes: you receive a request for a recommendation and your first reaction is going to be "what the…?" How do I know this? In my senior year of college I panicked and asked someone who taught me a seminar on social housing to write me a letter of recommendation for Medical School (yes, Medical School) because I was experiencing an existential crisis. The request was not fulfilled and it was never spoken of again, but it would have been nice to be told, "Hey Becky, this seems like a pretty left-field request—not because you want to change your professional focus, but because I don't know enough about you or what you want to recommend you."
Maybe you just mean "no" for now, and you end up spending more time with, and learning more about, the person who came to you for a recommendation in the first place. Like true love, sincere recommendations can't be rushed or faked, so don't say yes when you really won't contribute anything positive.