Thursday, March 17, 2016

Just Ask: Letters of Recommendation

With an unseasonably warm February behind us, Tufts students are currently in the throes of internship searches: stalking Jumbo Jobs and Idealist, writing personal statements, and of course, meeting with Career Advisors and Career Fellows. But one of the most anxiety-provoking, and arguably most important, part of almost any internship application is the letter of recommendation. You can write the perfect essay and drop a flawless resume, but at the end of the day, your potential supervisor wants to know what type of person and/or worker you are. Here's where the rec letter comes in. For some reason, though, asking for letters of recommendation is a common fear among college students - myself included. Just recently, I was talking with Nicole, my Career Center blog supervisor, about my hesitations about asking people for recommendation letters. (She had to tell me to be brave - that's how hesitant I was.)

Just replace "tell him he's cute" with "ask him for a letter of recommendation" and you've got every college student. (It might be reaching, but I'm running low on unused Friends quotes at this point.) Source
But despite my trepidation, my requests for letters of recommendation have always been well-received. Most professors, supervisors, or coaches are more than happy to show their support for you. Asking for recommendation letters is as easy as you want it to be - it may sound cliche, but all those fears and anxieties are just in your head. To make it even easier, though, I've listed below a few tips to make this seemingly Herculean task more bearable.

Just ask. The biggest piece of advice I can give is the title of this post (and also the title of one of my favorite songs by the band Lake Street Dive - who else was not prepared for Side Pony?). If you need a rec letter from someone, all you have to do is ask. The worst possible outcome is the person saying no, and usually it's for a pretty good reason (they're too busy, they don't think they know you well enough to do you justice, etc). No matter how nerve-wracking it may seem, just pull the trigger and ask.
For reference: the cover of Lake Street Dive's Bad Self Portraits, my latest musical obsession. (Source)

Ask well in advance. If your potential rec-letter-writer says no, it's likely because they don't have the time to write you a good letter. The easiest way to avoid this situation - and finding yourself without a rec letter a week before the application deadline - is to give your writer plenty of advance notice. It's convention to ask at least a month before the letter is due. Be sure that you also follow up before the deadline with a polite reminder email!

Ask the right people. Before my post infuses you with the confidence you need to go forth boldly in pursuit of rec letters, it's important to stop and think about the people you want to ask. Obviously, you'll want those who know you best to write letters for you, but at the same time, those who know you best may not be the most well-suited for the role. An example of this comes from my own experiences - that conversation with Nicole I mentioned earlier was about this very trade-off. I asked her for a recommendation for a research program, and while she readily agreed, she mentioned that it might be more beneficial to ask a supervisor from a previous research position I've held. In the end, I decided to stick with Nicole, because I felt that she knew me better and could speak more to my (transferable) skills than my other supervisor. But this is a different situation, with different outcomes, for everyone, and is worth a moment's pause.

How I feel immediately before asking anyone for a rec letter. (Source)

Be clear and informative to your recommender. It's important that whoever writes your rec letter understands the position you are applying for, and the criteria by which the letter will be judged. There are several kinds of recommendation letters: character references, letters of support, and letters of recommendation all have nuanced but important differences. I usually email whomever I ask to write a letter with recommendation guidelines provided in the application, so that they are aware of how best to frame their writing. It's also best to send along a resume/cover letter and any other information that would be helpful for your recommender to know. Furthermore, you can provide a few guidelines of your own about what you'd like the recommender to emphasize - in most cases you won't be able to see the letter they write, but you can help them write it.

Asking people to write letters of recommendation is a skill that you will need throughout your professional life. Whether it's for a summer internship, grad school, or a full-time job (whatever those are), you'll need to have this skill for the long run. But don't make a mountain out of a molehill - like any great opportunity, it all starts with a question.

Until next time,
Sean Boyden
Class of 2017