Letters of recommendation are a critical piece of an application, whether for a job, graduate school, or even a national award. The key to getting great letter writers is to plan ahead and to be proactive. You want letter writers to know you before you need a letter and you want to make it easy for them to write a great letter for you when the time comes. Here are some things you can do.
Forge relationships with faculty or other potential letter writers well before you need a letter.
Some ways you can do this are by taking small classes or independent studies, asking questions, volunteering for projects, engaging in directed research or service. In short, by showing that you are authentically interested in the substance of your work beyond just getting a grade. This history will make the letter stronger, more enthusiastic, and more credible.
Look for the best letter writers for you.
The person who can speak authoritatively and honestly to how well you fit the criteria of the position/opportunity is the best letter writer for that opportunity. Consider whose perspective and experience will shed the most light on the qualities you want to highlight. Sometimes status and connections make a difference, but not always. Sometimes your favorite teacher will be the best person, but not always. If unsure, discuss with a trusted mentor or advisor.
Ask in advance
Be sure to ask your potential recommender if they feel able to write you a positive and strong letter of recommendation, and ask well enough in advance. This usually means asking around a month ahead of time. If you sense hesitation, you may be better off going elsewhere.
Supply quality information that makes it easy for the writer to put you in a good light.
Many students know to provide their resume and transcript, but it's a good idea to also give the announcement and then craft short bullets that link your knowledge, skills, and abilities to its requirements. Show why you're a good fit. It's also helpful to provide a brief explanation of an experience you had with your letter writer that can jog his/her memory of who you are, particularly if your interactions were more than a year ago. (See UWT Recommendation Form (requires login with UW NetID and password.)
Make it a habit to follow up.
There are three points in which you should follow up with your recommenders:
- Send a reminder a week before the letter is due, just to be sure.
- Thank them for their support after your materials have been submitted.
- Keep them informed once you hear back, even if you were not successful with the application.
Remember, you are likely to apply for other things in the future and may well want their support again.
*Based on a 2013 research project at Drexel University in collaboration with Rona Buchalter, Jamie Callahan, Yoto Yotov.