Over the course of my tenure as an academic advisor, I have had the honor of being asked to serve as a reference many times over. It truly is an honor, as it gives me an opportunity to potentially help advance a student’s situation, whether it is to appeal financial aid denial, apply for a scholarship, or vie for their first professional position. In the case of the latter, it can especially be essential for a student whose primary focus was excelling in their coursework and perhaps does not have much experience beyond academia.
That said, the manner in which I am asked and the effort with which a student asks can largely impact the quality of my letter in most cases. If you are tasked with gathering reference materials, take the process seriously, and follow these tips to ensure you get the best possible letter of recommendation.
Know who you are asking
This seems like common sense, but it is sometimes appalling how little thought can be put into it. In one particular case, a student whom I’d never met actually walked into my office, addressed me as someone else, and proceeded to ask me to write them a letter. The answer was an obvious “no.” If you don’t recognize the person you are asking, it is safe to assume even if they do agree to write a letter, the letter will be vague, generic, and thus not of quality content.
Be certain they are in a position to write confidently about you
So you’ve identified someone you are going to ask to serve as a reference. Perhaps it is an instructor whose whose courses you've taken a number of times, thoroughly enjoyed their teaching style, and excelled in their courses. Or it might be an old manager from your last job or internship. Before you ask, be certain they are equally likely to remember you from class.
Thousands of students may regard Professor X as the best on campus, but that does not mean that they think you're among the best of their former students. On the other hand, your old manager may not know what to say about you if you interacted little while working with them.
Keep in mind that the best references are those who can speak to your performance on a particular project, with respect to a specific skill set, or who have witnessed your body of work over a period of time. If you are still in the process of building references, challenge yourself to go beyond the your old professors and your most recent former manager. Find clients, co-workers, advisors, and project supervisors you've worked with in the past. Seek out opportunities to connect with them and develop a mentor-mentee relationship.
Present your “ask” in a genuine and grateful way
Once you’ve taken care to avoid the first two pitfalls, make sure you are putting appropriate thought into how you approach your reference. First and foremost, demonstrate appreciation for what they have done (and perhaps are about to do) and never treat it as an expectation or natural by-product of their position and your relationship with them. Both of the following are variations of two separate approaches I’ve experienced as an academic advisor.
“My financial aid appeal is due Friday, and they are waiting on some letter from you to reinstate me.”
“Can I schedule an appointment with you to talk about my appeal and discuss everything I need to do to make sure it is submitted on time.”
You tell me who had a better letter of support. The onus for garnering reference letters, and their timely submission, is on you. Doing so in an appreciative and thankful manner is the least you could do.
Educate them on your interests and what you are applying to
It is natural to have some apprehension when approaching a reference, especially since you are likely asking someone who is already very busy to take extra time for you. Don’t make the false assumption that your reference doesn't want to learn more about your interests with regard to what you are applying for and why. In fact, a great reference will ask you these questions before they even think of starting their letter.
Take the time to properly educate them about the company, institution, or scholarship you are applying to, and remind them of why you are a genuine fit. Failing to do so may lead to a generic reference letter and you take the chance that the reference won’t connect your skills and experiences appropriately to the application.
Be as detailed as possible
Do you need one letter, or multiple letters tailored toward different applications? Is it an online question/answer submission, or does it need formatted as a formal letter? When is the deadline? When do you want it by? Does it have length requirements? The more details you can provide your reference, the better your reference can frame their letter and speak toward the skills and experiences that are most appropriate to your application. This is a simple yet overlooked step that can be the difference between a great reference letter and one that doesn't fit the requirements.
Give notice in advance
There are multiple reasons why you should give advance notice to your reference. The first that comes to mind is, once again, quality. Another is politeness. Perhaps the most important is to increase the likelihood that your reference can indeed generate a quality letter in time. They are busy, and if you give them ample time to work on the letter, they won't have to rush through it at the last minute.
Finally, without question, always thank your reference for the time and effort required to assist you in the application process. Also be sure and keep them apprised of any updates and ask if they would be willing to serve as a reference if the search necessitates a different style of letter or submission. And don't stress out. Assuming you followed this advice and have a good relationship with that individual, they will be happy to vouch for you.