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Tips & Info: Getting Good Recommendations

Who should you ask for a recommendation? How do you approach that person to ask for the recommendation? What steps can you take to help you get a strong recommendation? What information should a recommendation contain? Here are some suggestions.

CHOOSING RECOMMENDERS Choose carefully who you ask. In general, people you ask to give you a recommendation should:

  • know you well
  • be able to speak about your background and accomplishments in some detail
  • be supportive and enthusiastic about your plans
  • write well
  • have sufficient time to do the work
  • if possible, have experience writing recommendations

TYPES OF RECOMMENDATIONS Next, consider the type of recommendation that you need. There are three main types: academic recommendations, business recommendations, and personal or character recommendations.

Academic recommendations are written by people who can comment on your academic performance, capabilities, and potential. Usually these are supplied by teachers, professors, guidance counselors, academic advisors, graduate teaching assistants, or someone else involved in your education. If you are required to submit a recommendation from your guidance counselor or academic advisor, you'll have to approach the person currently assigned to advise you. If you think that person may not know you very well, make an appointment ahead of time to discuss your plans and familiarize them with who you are. If you are required to submit a recommendation from a professor or teacher, the best choice is someone who is familiar with your recent academic record, who taught one or more courses in which you got an A (or B), and who ranks you highly compared to other students they have known.

Let's suppose you have a few professors or teachers who fit those criteria. What other criteria might help you decide? The person's academic rank, scholarship standing, and length of service are also important factors. In general, the recommendations of people with tenure and long-standing, well-regarded records of scholarship and teaching carry greatest weight. (At the college level, tenured faculty include full professors, associate professors, and emeritus, or retired, faculty.) This is not to downgrade recommendations from non-tenured faculty (assistant professors, instructors, lecturers) or graduate assistants, which certainly can offer strong support for a candidate's record. But if you could get strong recommendations from both tenured and non-tenured faculty, it is better to choose the person whose reputation is more established.

Business recommendations are typically provided by employers or job supervisors who can comment on your job performance and career potential. It is best to ask someone who knows you well, has witnessed your job performance over a period of time, has worked with you recently, and who has given you strong job performance reviews. The higher that person's job position and stature in the company or industry, the better (provided she or he really does know you well).

Personal or character recommendations are written by people who know you well primarily on a personal basis and who can fill in details that your academic or business contacts cannot. People you've worked with or known through a social or civic organization, neighborhood group, church group, etc. would all be candidates. The best choices are people who have known you well for a long period of time and will speak highly of your character. As well, it often helps if these people have a strong career or educational background of their own and/or are well-regarded figures in the community. Think of any school principals, professors, elected officials, business owners, etc. who know you well and would possibly recommend you.

Lastly, consider that your recommenders should speak to different aspects of who you are. While people giving different type recommendations will naturally comment on different areas, make sure that people who are supplying the same type recommendation also cover different things. For example, if you are applying for undergraduate admission and need to supply more than one academic recommendation, ask teachers from different fields (e.g., your physics and English teachers versus two science teachers). If you are applying for admission to a specialized graduate or professional program and need multiple recommendations from specialists in the same field, choose people who work in different sub-fields (e.g., for an MBA program with a concentration in real estate finance, perhaps choose an employer or professor who specializes in commercial real estate finance and one who specializes in residential real estate finance). The point is to choose a group of recommenders who will, together, present a full-bodied and varied portrait of your strengths.

ASKING FOR RECOMMENDATIONS Once you've chosen the people you will ask for a recommendation, how do you approach them? It is best to make a formal request. If the person knows you as a student, advisee, or employee, make an appointment with them to explain your plans.

When you talk with your potential recommender, tell them you are applying for college admission or an award and that you are required to supply a recommendation along with your application. Ask them to consider giving you a recommendation and briefly explain why you chose them. If necessary, remind them of details such as the grades you received in courses you took with them and when, how long you have been an employee at the company and what promotions you received, etc. You might acknowledge that writing a recommendation takes time and effort and stipulate that you only want their recommendation if they are completely comfortable giving you one.

In the best circumstance, the person will agree to give you a strong recommendation. If the person tells you that they can give you a recommendation, but it will be mixed, take it that the person is just giving you their most honest response, leaving the choice up to you. You'll need to decide if having their recommendation is worth it. If your list of potential recommenders is slim, or if your record is mixed, you could accept anyway and the recommendation might suffice. If the person outright declines to give the recommendation, realize that you are better off getting a rejection than getting a recommendation that harms you, or tells reviewers that you are not worthy of admission or receiving an award. While this situation occurs rarely, and usually only in highly competitive academic settings, it does happen. The recommender may view it as their duty to the profession or field to make sure that weak candidates are weeded out. Take care that this doesn't happen to you by specifying that you only want supportive and/or strong recommendations and would appreciate a candid response as to whether one could be supplied.

HELPING YOURSELF TO GET A STRONG RECOMMENDATION Once you've gotten people lined up to give you recommendations, what can you do to make their task easier and also promote your chances for getting the strongest recommendation possible? First, even though you explained your history to that person verbally, it is a good idea to provide a written summary of the basic data needed to write the recommendation. State exactly what you are applying for. If you're applying for college admissions, mention the specific schools. If you're applying for an academic award, mention the specific award. Remind them of how long they've known you and in what capacity. For people writing academic recommendations, list the courses you took with them, the dates when the courses were administered and completed, and the grades you received. If you did a special project with or for them, briefly outline the project's details and results. For people writing business recommendations, supply a resume or a short work history relevant to your association with them. Also summarize your academic and career or professional plans and goals.

Secondly, supply any forms or questions required for writing the recommendation. Usually there is a form for the recommender to fill out, or at least a specific question or set of questions to answer. If the application directions ask the recommender to supply their own personal recommendation without using any form, simply tell them this or supply a copy of the directions. Also, indicate to the recommender whether the recommendation will be confidential or not. If you have a choice in the matter, it is generally best to choose confidentiality. This helps insure that the evaluation will be candid. Admissions and scholarship committees generally consider confidential evaluations more valid for this reason. If, however, you have any doubts that the recommendation will support you, non-confidentiality may be the best option. That way you can make sure any negative recommendations are weeded out.

Thirdly, give the recommender a deadline for completion, allowing plenty of time before the actual application deadline. If the recommendation is supposed to be included with your application, make arrangements to get the recommendation. If the recommender is to send the recommendation directly to the school or organization, supply stamped, addressed envelopes.

Fourthly, supply your contact information (phone number, email address, etc.) in case the recommender has any questions. Also, to be on the safe side, you might also send a reminder when the deadline for the recommendation's completion nears. If the person has an administrative assistant or secretary, work with the assistant on this.

Lastly, after the recommendation has been sent, send the recommender a thank-you note or thank them personally. This isn't just a matter of good etiquette; you may need another recommendation from this person in the future. Finally, let the person know of the results of your application.

WHAT THE RECOMMENDATION SHOULD CONTAIN Sometimes recommenders ask for a list of information the recommendation should contain, or for a draft recommendation. Here's a checklist of important items the recommendation should contain:

  • The recommender's name and title.
  • The purpose of the statement and the applicant's name. For example: "I am a professor at X University. I am providing a recommendation on behalf of (applicant's name)."
  • Information about how the recommender has known that applicant and for how long. For example: "X has been my employee at Y Company since August 1998."
  • If the applicant is/was a student of the recommender, a list of the courses or information about the general subject area might be provided.
  • If the applicant is/was an employee or supervisee of the recommender, a list of relevant job positions and responsibilities might be provided.
  • A comprehensive ranking of the applicant. The ranking should be as specific as possible, and information should be supplied about the group to which the applicant is being compared. For example: "Compared to other undergraduate students I have known at X University who also got accepted to law school, this applicant ranks among the top 5-10%." Or, "Among third-year staff in our division, X was ranked at the top of her class two years in a row." Rankings that employ numbers or percentages are more useful than general qualifiers such as "good," "top-notch," etc.
  • If the applicant is applying for college admission, an assessment of her or his communication skills should be supplied, distinguishing between verbal, written, and oral skills. If the applicant is applying to study in a language that is not his/her native language, the assessment should comment on skills in that language. It is best to give specific rankings of competence wherever possible. For example, "On a scale of 1-5, with five representing highest competence (or complete fluency), I would rank this applicant's competence as 4 for written language skills, 5 for verbal, and 5 for oral."
  • If the applicant is applying for admission to a specialized program, assess the applicant's skills that most relate to the specialized area. For example, if a student is applying to a program specializing in diagnostic medical procedures, or an MBA in finance, an assessment of quantitative skills should be supplied.
  • An assessment of comprehension and analytical abilities.
  • An assessment of motivation, drive, responsibility, level of maturity, creativity, independence, and other factors which generally contribute to an applicant's competitive performance.
  • If the applicant is applying for college admission, information about how the applicant performed in work or courses relevant to their intended major should be provided.
  • A general statement of expectations for the applicant's future performance. For example, is the applicant prepared to successfully complete an intended program of study? How well is she/he likely to do in their chosen career? Is he/she equipped to do independent research and make a substantial contribution to their chosen field? etc.
  • Particular examples, personal anecdotes, that illustrate the applicant's success, help explain why he/she is outstanding, and that suggest the he/she will do very well or excel in achieving their goals. This is one of the most important requirements the recommendation should fulfill. In essence, the recommender should give specific examples that explain why she/he believes the applicant deserves admission and/or an award, and why they have high confidence in the applicant's future success.
  • An explicit statement of degree of confidence in the applicant's future success. For example: "In sum, I give X my highest recommendation. I am fully confident that she will be highly successful in her studies as well as her career."
  • The recommender's personal contact information and a statement of willingness to be contacted for further information about the applicant. For example: "I may be reached by phone at X or by email at Y in case you need any further information about (applicant's name)."

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