How to make recommendations work for you

Getting (and writing) great letters of support

Posted Jan 18, 2011

In the past two blog postings of mine, I've covered key topics related to the application process-- interviews and personal statements. This posting addresses that crucial third component to job hunting success.  I'll show you how to use psychology to ensure that your letters provide that final push you need to get the position you seek, whatever it is.  I'm combining advice for "requesters") "recommenders", but each can benefit.   Requesters will learn how to ask more effectively for letters of support and recommenders will learn how to write more effectively.  I'd also advise recommenders to share this blog with your students, employees, or advisees to help them get an inside track on the jobs and positions they most desire. This will also make your life much easier, as you will shortly find out.

Advice for requestors:

We'll use the common scenario in which a student or job hunter is applying for multiple positions. Many people applying for jobs, promotions, internship positions, or university admission apply to more than one at a time. For a competitive position you might apply to as many as 12 different places. However, even if you're only applying for one position, the same rules are in order.

The most important issue for you to consider is to decide who to ask for a recommendation.  Are you better off with a higher-up person whose name is more widely known but who doesn't know you? Or would your letter be stronger if it came from a lowlier source who knows you extremely well? One approach is to have the lower-ranking person actually write the letter which the higher-up person then signs. The problem with this approach is that it can be construed as unethical. The famous person doesn't know you at all but is giving the impression to the reader that he or she has observed your actions on a daily basis and can vouch for your terrific qualities. A way around this dilemma is to have the higher-up person author the letter and in the body of the letter, state that he or she is relying on the lower-ranking person's say-so. In this case, though, you would be well advised to make an appointment with the big shot so that you have made some actual, direct contact.  This strategy is actually an excellent one from a psychological point of view. By making this personal contact with the big boss, you might wander into some new and unexpected opportunities for advancement.

You might wonder here about timing. If you finish one job or school position and don't need a letter right away, but will in the future, when should you ask for it? My advice is simple-find out what your recommender prefers. I personally think generic letters of recommendation that don't address a specific position aren't all that good, so I suggest that people wait and ask when they need the actual letter. In the meantime, stay in touch with your recommender and don't just contact him or her solely for the purposes of getting the letter.  That way, the person is sure to remember you!

When you make the actual request, ask if the recommender feels comfortable writing you a good (i.e. positive) letter for the position.  Your closeness to the recommender will determine how you actually word the request.  If you get a "no" or sense some reluctance, you might want to reconsider whether you should ask this person to complete the recommendation.

Let's hope the answer was an enthusiastic "yes!" Put together in an easily accessible manner all of the documents that you submitted for your application and give these to your recommender. Find out if your recommender prefers to see these as hard copy or as e-files and then send them in the preferred manner. These documents should include, as necessary, your own personal statement, your resume, and your transcript (if required). They should be the exact documents you submit in your application.  I also advise you to indicate, either in your request or as a separate document, the exact nature of your relationship with the recommender. Professors and employers won't have in their heads the dates of your work together, but they are usually asked to provide this info in their recommendation. Don't make these people have to guess or consult their records.  Again, from a psychological point of view, your attention to these details will show that you actually are organized, attentive to detail, and have all the other positive qualities about yourself that you want the recommender to verify. It's great impression management to be organized when you're asking for something important from a boss.

With regard to the actual forms themselves, some positions require letters only; others involve complex documents with multiple parts which are either online or paper.  If hard copy letters are involved, provide a list of all people to whom the letters should be addressed.  Give the recommender stamped, addressed envelopes and put the return address of the recommender on the envelopes.  Make sure that everything you've obtained is up-to-date and accurate.

Here's another common question: Do recommenders resent being asked for multiple letters from one person? The answer is no, they do not. Most recommenders don't mind adapting the basic letter they've written to the specific purpose.  However, make sure that you remind the recommender to proofread the letter before sending it off.  A letter that says you'd be a great employee at Gotham City Bank would not go over very well if read by an employer seeking to fill a position at Metropolitan Bank.

If forms are required in hard copy, put them neatly in order in a folder along with their envelopes. You can get creative with the way you organize these by color coding or using attractive notebooks or file folders. For online requests, you won't have to do this. But if there is a mix of online and hard copies, then you have to include the online form descriptions in this little portfolio you prepare for your recommender. Psychologically, this step is important because you are reducing the cognitive load on your recommender. People trying to help you in your career are probably busy, and will appreciate this courtesy. They'll also be less likely to make mistakes.

Occasionally, recommendations are requested over the telephone. There are sometimes issues of confidentiality in phone or email requests. You need to assure your recommender, in written form , that you waive your right to see or find out about this communication.

Advice for recommenders:

If you're reading this advice as the applicant needing help with requests, don't stop here! There's plenty of information in the next few paragraphs that are worth your attention.  Just look for the phrase "requesters alert."

The most key rule for recommenders is to be detailed and specific. Letters that announce the applicant to be "dedicated, hard-working, diligent, and responsible" tend to produce a long and sleepy yawn in potential supervisors. Instead of throwing a bunch of adjectives out there, provide a really clear and compelling example (requesters alert: remind your recommender of these incidents when you make your request).  The example, in this case, might be: "Mary spent six hours fixing the errors someone else made in a file and by the time she was done, all of the errors were fixed."  This example indicates that Mary is indeed "dedicated, hard-working, etc." and by painting a vivid picture of what she did, the recommender creates a strong impression in the reader's mind.

Recommenders must also respond to requests in a timely fashion (requesters alert: make sure you make your request 2-3 weeks in advance).  I've seen many applicants badly hurt by a missing or late recommendation. Your desire to help the applicant should translate into your willingness to comply with reasonable and well-timed requests (requester alert: if you know your recommender tends to be late with deadlines, make sure that you send a couple of friendly reminders).

In the best scenario, you have nothing but positive things to say about the applicant. If so, that's great. You can wax poetic to your heart's content.  Don't feel that you have to balance the negative with the positive just to sound more authentic. However, if you truly have some cautions (and the applicant didn't ask you for a "good" letter), then you're in a bind.  Examine why you're feeling so mixed about this person.  Was the applicant younger and more foolish at an earlier time but now has grown wiser and more effective? Do you ever feel that the applicant let you down or betrayed you in some way?  Or, worse, are you secretly envious of the applicant?  It the issue is with you, and not the applicant, make sure you sort this out before you condemn the applicant with "faint praise," or worse.

If everything you have to say is terrific but your writing is not, you might wish to consult my earlier blog about writing personal statements. The same rules apply for writing terrific letters. The rule that you "show" but don't "tell" applies to recommendations as well as personal statements. Let the reader draw his or her own inferences about the requester by crafting well-written stories. Above all, don't use the recommendation as a way to sell yourself. I've read letters written by faculty members that talk about their great research, courses, or writing and mention (by the way) the work of the student as an afterthought. Nobody needs to hear you blow your own horn in this situation!

To sum up, here are some final tips.

1. Use common courtesy: Ask nicely for recommendations, and respond in kind if you're asked to provide one.

2. Keep to a timely schedule: Requesters need to give recommenders enough lead time to do their job effectively. Recommenders need to set reminders for themselves to complete the job on time.

3. Maintain careful records. The files that you build for yourself as recommender or writer can be used for years to come as long as you know where to find them.

No matter how sophisticated our world becomes, it still runs on word of mouth. Take recommendation letters seriously, because they count! 

Here's another great online resource written by former Penn State prof and recommendation guru Joe Schall.

For more career-related blogs, check out these postings:

Selling it: Making interviews work for you

Writing a compelling life story in 500 words or less 

Writing the perfect CV or resume: A 5 step guide

Want to boost your job prospects? Try a beauty makeover

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011