It's graduation time and many new people are spilling out into the job market. I wrote recently about Ten Habits To Cultivate for new graduates.
Today I want to write about recommendations. Over the last ten years, it seems as if more and more employers are asking for written letters of recommendation before they are willing to consider a job applicant. Although this isn't strictly a 'psychology' topic, there are many aspects of psychology that contribute to how we approach them.
Why do you need them?
Recommendations serve four basic functions.
- They verify that what you put on your resume is true. You say you worked for Jane Doe at Children's Hospital of Boston? Yes, indeed, she is willing to verify that. And yes, you do know how to use R, Stata, and SPSS to run statistics.
- They identify loose cannons and personality issues. Chronic tardiness, profane language, explosive tempers, or overt racism are all issues of concern to an employer. They may make you a less desirable employee, even if you have other skills that make you perfect for the job. Those issues about on-the-job functioning can only be picked up by hearing from people you worked with.
- They bring out strengths and 'soft skills' not listed on your resume. Resumes and vitas list key aspects of your experience. Letters of recommendation flesh those out and provide context for them. They say that you were the leader of your work group, that you have a great sense of humor that helped keep people going when things got stressful, and that you take criticism well. They talk about how incredibly interesting that research project you did was and how you were willing to work late to finish up a project. They talk about how you held the hand of a patient whose child was ill. They bring you to life.
- They create another barrier. Finally, letters of recommendation form a barrier. It's a pain to ask for them. Most people can think of one person to write for them. If you're asked for three, you need to dig a lot deeper to find people who have something meaningful to say. That you can find several people to write for you is, unto itself, a testament to your character.
Why is it hard to ask for letters?
I normally write about parenting and families, but was prompted to write this blog post after watching students and family members fumble over the process of finding references.
A friend, who has written several novels and has published a textbook supplement and a raft of scientific papers, struggled for hours yesterday trying to type out the few lines he needed to ask for a job reference from a professor he'd recently taken a class from. He had gotten an A+.
Why is it so hard?
It brings out your insecurity. For those of us who are insecure, applying for jobs brings out all our self doubts. Am I qualified? There are other people out there who are better/smarter/more qualified/better schooled than me. Applying for jobs already evokes that feeling that we are being judged. We are.
In addition to those voices in our heads raising doubts about ourselves as competent workers, asking for letters of recommendations also raises doubts about our relationships. When we ask for a letter of recommendation, we are making the judgment that the person we are asking (a) likes us, (b) thinks we are a good worker, and (c) will be willing to take the time to write a good letter. We can feel doubts about all of those issues.
The younger we are, the more we are likely to feel those doubts. First of all, the ability to think about what other people think of us only develops during adolescence. From a Piagetian perspective, this is the time when we develop deeper insight into the internal thought processes of others. Accurately understanding what others think of us involves (a) understanding what they see (b) ignoring what we know but they don't (c) understanding their personality/biases (d) understanding how their characteristics will change their reaction to the information we are presenting them with. It's complicated. It is one of the things that leads to heightened self-consciousness in early and middle adolescence. Those feelings still haven't subsided by the time most of us are applying for our first jobs. And those doubts get louder when we are asking for a letter.
In addition to thinking about your referee, you're also thinking about your would-be employer. If I don't ask for a letter from the person who I worked for for three years, will the new employer think I was fired? So not only are you second-guessing your own abilities and what's on the mind of referees, you're also second guessing the person reading those letters. It's tough.
It's also about trust. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, you are trusting that the person who is writing for you will take that role seriously. You are hoping that they will write good things about you and ignore all your foibles and any personal disagreements you might have. So as you are asking them to judge you, you are also judging them.
You're asking for a favor. Just to add another twist, at the same time you may be feeling insecure about applying for a job, and insecure that the person you're asking doesn't really have good things to say about you, you are asking them for a favor. Considerate people don't like take other people's time.
A small word of wisdom: They probably don't mind that much. If they are a teacher or professor, writing letters is part of their job. If they are an employer, they probably do it fairly often and have a standard letter. If you're asking them for several, the probably saved the first one and will just modify it. We've all had to ask. Turn around is fair play. Just do it.
Practical things: How to ask for the letter
I usually write 50-100 letters of recommendation every year. I have helped at least five people write letters asking for recommendations from other people in the last month. Here is my unscientific advice based on my experience. Check career sites for other suggestions.
When choosing references, think about what the employer wants. An employer wants to know:
- what skills you have
- how fast you learn
- how reliable you are, and
- what you are like to work with.
Each reference doesn't have to address all of those things. Given a choice, make sure at least one reference can verify the key skills you list on your resume. Make sure at least one can talk about your reliability and personality. If the job involves working with a special population (children, high risk youth, people in need of psychological services, people with physical disabilities), make certain that someone can talk about your skills working with that population. Because I'm a developmental psychologist, I often get called by organizations that work with high risk kids. Yes, they care that my students are smart. But they really want to know that they are patient and fun and can be firm but warm. If you're applying to a job like that, make sure someone talks about WHO you are, not just what you can do.
Choose writers you trust
If you have ever heard the person you are considering asking for a reference saying vengeful or spiteful things that struck you as out of line, don't ask for a reference. People hold grudges for wierd reasons. If you think the person just might take time out of their busy day to write a poison pen letter, don't ask them. If you aren't sure, ask them honestly if they think they can write you a good reference. I know from experience that it is hard to say 'no' when someone asks. If you ask for a letter and they seem hesitant or suggest you find someone else, think hard about whether that might be a good idea.
When asking for a letter, remind references who you are
Embarassing as it is to say, I have many students who I like, respect, and would be happy to write letters for, but whose name I can't place. Give me a face and a name and I can immediately tell you all about them. But just send me an e-mail out of the blue and I may know the name but not place you. Or I may know you are one of three students but be unsure about which. Although I can look up your grades based on the name, I can't talk in depth about the information I really do know about you until I put a face with that name. I have had at least 2,000 students in my classes. I'm getting old. Help me to help you.
If you don't think the person will immediately know you or if it's been a while, give the person a context. Start the letter by reminding them that you took this class with them, or that you worked with them during a particular period doing a particular thing, or reminding them of some shared experience. You can send them your resume and attach a picture taken from a time when they knew you. It is never a bad thing to start the letter by acknowledging that you know they have had many employees or students and explicitly remind them who you are.
Tell the person why you chose them as a reference
As I said earlier, different people know you in different contexts. If you chose this person because you think they can attest to how quickly you learn tricky technical skills or because you acted as a supervisor to difficult patients or because you work well under stress, tell them that. It gives them a starting place for their letter and it helps to ensure that they will include this information in their letter. Otherwise, they may talk about something else. The context you provide in the first paragraph can help set the stage for telling them you asked them, in particular, to act as a reference for them. It prompts old memories and will help to bring out other related memories. It makes them feel more special. All of this will help them write a richer, more useful, letter.
Make it easy for them
If you are asking for several letters, list where they go in the order the person is likely to do them, with clear deadlines and instructions. Make sure to include:
- Who the letter should be addressed to (if you know)
- The address (physical or virtual)
- What the position is you're applying for
- Any key information that makes this letter different from others (reliability is important, ability to work with diverse populations is important, knowing Mandarin is important)
- DUE DATE
It is usually easiest for the reference to sit down and do a bunch of letters all at the same time. If you won't be able to do that, tell your reference that up front. Then organize things as easily for the reference as you can.
Even though it may be part of your referee's job to write a letter for you doesn't mean it is not a kindness for them to do so. Take all that insecurity you have and put it into your sincere thanks for their kindness in writing the letter.