Dr. Kane, can you write a recommendation letter for me?
Dr. Kane writes lots of letters for students, it's one of the best parts of the job! It's also 100% part of the job, so don't be afraid to ask for them (it's probably expected). If you've never asked for a letter from a professor before, here are some things to consider:
Cultivate strong relationships. Familiarize yourself with the kinds of things your letter writers will write about in a letter. Here is a helpful guide for letter writers for medical school applications, but the qualities they are looking for are important for other career choices as well. How can you build relationships with professors and other professionals to enable them to write strong letters for you? If you're not sure, ask! A good way for us to provide a strong letter is by working with you more in depth than what usually occurs in classes. If you do get an opportunity like this, such as working in a research lab, be aware of how you can show them who you are and what you are capable of. For example, it's one thing if they can say that you showed up on time and did all the things on the list and learned a new technique as a result, but it's another if they can discuss an example of how your involvement in one particular case resulted in outcomes that would not have been possible otherwise. In other words, we want to be able to talk about you and what you got out of the experience, as well as how it was beneficial to us (and potentially a future employer).
Start your application early. You should do this before contacting letter writers so you can provide your application materials for their reference. Since you should also give letter writers at least 2 weeks before the deadline (it doesn't take this long to write a letter, but it can take this long to find time to write the letter), this means you may want to start your applications at least a month before the deadline so you can make progress before asking for letters. This will also provide time to ask your mentors (potentially your letter writer) for feedback on your materials. They've probably written, seen, or relied on these types of materials before and can tell you what they look for and point you to common mistakes, if present. You should also ask one or more people to proofread your materials to ensure there are no spelling and grammar mistakes or other errors that can make an application appear sloppy.
Know what you're applying for and what they require. Have some target schools or jobs lined up. Know their deadlines and know what materials they are asking for. If you're not sure, there is usually a contact listed on the ad and you should reach out and ask them. Some places require you to supply materials or addresses to letter writers, others ask you to submit information into an online form that will email your letter writers automatically, some positions only request contact information and not full letters, other places want a phone number and will call instead of asking for a letter. However, you can bet that in almost all cases (because there are always exceptions), the entity you are applying to wants the information straight from your reference to ensure confidentiality. If they ask for a letter to be delivered by the person requesting it, it should be contained in a signed and sealed envelope. It is a red flag if a student requests the letter to be sent to them (the student) without ensuring confidentiality, and may make a letter writer uncomfortable enough to say no. Additionally, if the potential employer knows the student handled the letter before it was submitted, they may be hesitant to accept it.
Consider waiving your right to see the letter. As tempting as it is to NOT check this box, letter writers may be wary and write a vague letter. Or the people reading your letters may think you have something to hide. While this shouldn't be the case, it often is. If you do think it's important that you see the letter, you can always ask. A good mentor should be honest with you about your strengths and weaknesses and should not be afraid to share the letter or their thoughts in the letter. But know that some people are uncomfortable with this, in general, and may say no. Respect that decision. For more information, see this Twitter thread by Dr. Terry McGlynn.
Update your letter writers. Did you get the position or job? Let us know! We want to celebrate with you! We may be trying to keep tabs on where students go when they graduate so we can give suggestions to current students. We may also want to brag about you a little on social media or our website. After all, your success is a win for us as well, as your mentors!
Think you're ready to ask?
To help me stay organized and obtain necessary information, please use this google form: