Recommendation Requests 101

We’ve all received them — hastily drafted, vague, requests for recommendations sent at the eleventh hour.

It only makes sense that this would be the case. First-year college students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, most of which would not make writing a professional request intuitive and easily achievable. It’s more likely that this experience would prove to be some combination of befuddling, intimidating, exasperating, and unexpected.

Knowing this, how can we best support our students in successfully requesting references from us and other faculty/staff in the future? First, we can be clear about what we need to write a strong letter of recommendation, regardless of the situation. Second, in spaces like First Year Experience we can preemptively provide students with some basic “dos” and “don’ts” to go along with this list before they ever need to think about that first request.

Request Checklist:

When requesting a letter of recommendation remember to include as much information as possible so that your faculty/staff member can write you the best letter possible. This makes it easier for them to say something meaningful that will help your application stand out. It also takes stress off of the person who is supporting you, which shows respect for them and their time. Whenever possible, share the following items as soon as possible:

  1.  A full description of the organization/experience you’re applying for, including the specific role or opportunity you’re seeking and what you think you’ll gain
  2. A full description of the application you’re completing, focusing on how the recommendation should be submitted, to whom, and by when
  3. An updated version of your resume
  4. A short explanation of why you think they would be a good person to recommend you that highlights some relevant successes or characteristics you believe they have seen you demonstrate

Basic Dos and Don’ts:

Recommendation Request Dos Recommendation Request Don’ts
Try to meet with the recommender in person to talk about the opportunity and why you’re applying. Assume that they will write you a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference.
Use professional salutations and closings in all emails. Write in informal language, including texting spellings of words.
If the person holds a doctorate, address and emails to “Dr. –“ Wait to the last minute to choose and speak with your recommenders.
Copyedit all written communications. Request recommendations from people who can’t really speak to your skills and/or character.
Give as much advanced notice as possible, at least two weeks.
Write a thank you letter to each recommender.
Let them know the outcome of your application.
Send friendly reminders as the deadline approaches.
Build relationships early in your college career so that you have faculty/staff who would be confident in referring you for opportunities as they arise.

Worst Case Scenarios:

No consideration of recommendation requests would be complete without addressing the rare, but challenging, instances in which you truly shouldn’t recommend a student. In my experience, these fall into two categories: A) The student needs to find someone who can more explicitly speak to their strengths in a particular field. B) You don’t really have anything positive to say about the student. What’s the best course of action here? Respectful honesty. Again, this is a challenging task for students. So they may not always make the right choices.

Case A is a bit easier. For example, you start hearing/reading about the opportunity, and you realize that they are looking for a specific type of reference you can’t offer. They may need a professor in their field from whom they’ve taken a relevant class, or a person who can speak to their leadership skills from experience. At this point show the student how you came to this conclusion so they can realize this independently in the future. Then help them brainstorm other faculty/staff who would be more appropriate for this particular application. Unless the student truly doesn’t have anyone who is a better fit it would be a disservice to this student to do otherwise.

Case B can be harder. For example, for faculty this might be a student who missed many classes, failed to turn in assignments, and earned poor marks as a result, then coming to you for a reference. For staff this might be a student who you had to reprimand for poor conduct in a residence hall, or who signed up for a student group you advise but never contributed. After my first experience with this type of situation I began requiring #4 on the checklist above from all of my students. If the student needs to offer a short explanation of why they think you would be a good person to recommend them they will have to tell you about all of the things they’ve done that qualify them for the position. If they have example you then have a list of other potential people who would be better choices that you can suggest earnestly and with kindness. However, if they can’t come up with examples you can shift the conversation to other opportunities where they might build these credentials. It probably won’t be what the student wants to hear. But it can be a productive, positive teachable moment that helps the student still build towards their goals.

With these simple tools, it’s my hope that we can be more effective at supporting our students, and our students can be more successful in reaching for their aspirations.

Question for Readers: Do you have anything to add to the lists? If so, why is this important for you and your students? Thanks for your thoughts!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kristyn G. says:

    I really like recommendation #4. Not only does it make the student think about why they are asking you to write them a recommendation, but it also gives the busy professor fodder to work from when writing the recommendation. Especially if the student who is asking was in a larger class. Thanks for the insightful post!

Leave a Reply