Getting Glowing Recommendations

By Adela Penagos, PhD

Each academic year, I get several requests from current and former students to recommend them for study abroad and graduate or professional programs, fellowships, internships, and other opportunities. Whenever the student is a strong candidate for his or her pursuit, I agree to strongly support him or her and it is a pleasure to write a letter on his or her behalf. However, if my letter is not going to set the student apart, I decline the request. I would like to offer you some tips on how to ensure that your recommendation request will translate into a glowing endorsement:

1)   Invest in the Relationship Prior to Making the Request.

My strongest letters are for students I know well both academically and personally.  My overall knowledge of the person allows me to give specific examples of the student’s strengths and to use concrete evidence to position the student well within the context of the position or program he or she is pursuing.  Would you like to get to this point with your faculty or instructor?  Visit him or her during office hours, ask him or her to have coffee or share a meal.  In essence, make the time to get to know him or her and vice versa.

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2)   Make your Request in a Timely Fashion.

In the middle of February, I received a link of a student request for a letter of recommendation. The only challenge was that the student in question had not asked me to be his reference. Furthermore, the letter needed to be submitted within two days. I was running, as I usually do, on a very tight schedule. As a result, I declined the request.  It is unwise to assume the recommender will agree to your request without asking first and giving him or her notice of the due date. It takes time to write a strong recommendation. Please provide your recommender with, at least, three weeks notice.

3)   Provide Your Recommender with Background Information.

It is essential to provide your recommender with background information on the program or position you are applying for and an updated resume or CV. This will enable the recommender to make a strongest case on your behalf and show that you are the ideal candidate for the program or position you seek. 

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4)   Be grateful.

It is important to acknowledge that recommenders are going out of their way to endorse your candidacy.  Thus, a short email message expressing gratitude or a nice thank you note after they have recommended you will go a long way –you never know when you might need their help again. Do not forget to update them on the outcome of your application. Recommenders are delighted to hear when you successfully achieve your goals.

I have always considered it an honor to write letters of recommendation or serve as a reference for multiple candidates applying to diverse positions. When I say yes, my letters make a difference, as I take this process very seriously. Good luck getting recommendations that will set you apart.