I recently attended a faculty retreat at the AuSable Institute in Michigan, where I met Dr. Fred Van Dyke. Fred, a long time professor and lifetime environmental educator, had some very good tips on writing and asking for letters of recommendation from his many years of experience. They’re applicable regardless of discipline or industry, and can be given to others when you’re on the other side being asked to write one yourself.
Think of a recommendation letter as a person to get in the door, not a letter to get out. Remember that it should make a persuasive argument as to why the person being recommended is the one for the job, and should detail how the person recommended will be a lasting solution to solving the particular problem described in the job description. As a recommender, it is your role to persuade the hiring committee that your colleague is the person they want. And if you’re asking for a letter, it is your role to provide all the information your recommender could need to write that convincing argument, in addition to their knowledge of you from your relationship.
Here are good guidelines to follow when asking for a letter of recommendation, or to ask for when someone asks you for one:
- Provide a written description of the position you are applying for (problem to be solved). This allows your recommender to acknowledge the problem you will solve if you get the position.
- Tell your recommender in writing why you want the position and why you are the right person for it. This allows your recommender to corroborate your story and provide supporting evidence from their knowledge of and relationship with you.
- Provide your recommender with a current transcript and CV. (This applies more for academic positions; a resume can be used for industry positions). This gives your recommender an easy reminder of specific examples of why you are the perfect fit.
- Give your recommender at least 3 weeks notice. This allows your recommender to find enough time to write you a great letter and have it back to you before the deadline. Be sure to communicate the deadline for when you need the letter completed by, and where it needs to go.
- Tell your recommender what your career goals are, and how this position fits into those goals. This gives your recommender a broader perspective on your goals and allows them to write an argument to your potential employer on what steps you are perfectly aligned to take in your new role that just so happen to be exactly what you want to do.
Letters of recommendation are a part of an ongoing relationship. Being prepared when asking for a letter and being honest about the quality of letter you can provide shows respect to each other and each other’s time.