September 13, 2012
One of our former vice presidents for student affairs, Rich Hollingsworth, used to post a weekly column for students called “Rich Text.” In it, he would relate some story, impart some bit of wisdom, or just talk about his cats. One of my favorites that made a repeat appearance every year was his suggestions to students on seeking letters of recommendation from faculty and staff.
With a nod to one of my mentors in the field, I thought the start of the academic year would be a good time to pull out some of Rich’s pearls (yes, I do have an email from 2008 with one of his original columns, did you doubt that I would?) and update it with a few of my own. Feel free to share with students on your campus or add your own helpful hints.
Here is what I general tell students when seeking a recommendation from me or one of my colleagues:
- First, please know that for the most part, we genuinely enjoy writing a letter of support for you. We like to make sure we can give it the focus and attention it deserves, though, so make sure you reach out in an appropriate amount of time. Two to three weeks before the letter is due is appropriate, but more notice is always appreciated. If you’re asking for a letter in a shorter time frame, be ready for someone to possibly say no or at least know their favorite candy or coffee order as a way to say thanks for making a last-minute accommodation.
- Make sure you know that you will be able to get a generally positive letter from the recommender. I’ve been asked to write letters for students with whom I have may have had a contentious or strained relationship. I can always make someone sound good, but I am not willing to compromise my own values or ethics to exclude information that may work against a candidate. As a writer, I will always let the student know if I feel I am not the best person for the job in the interest of full disclosure. If you’re not sure you’re going to get a good letter, consider asking someone else. I’ve gotten requests from students that I only know because they’ve been to one of my treasurer training sessions. If all I can say is, “S/he stayed awake for the full 90 minutes,” perhaps I don’t know you as well as you think I do.
- Include as much information as possible in the “ask.” I will always ask students for a copy of their resume. Even if it’s just a working draft, it gives me an opportunity to tie what I know about the student to their academic or extracurricular activities that I might not know as much about. Most of my interaction with students occurs outside the classroom. If they’re applying for an academic scholarship, I certainly want to be able to comment on their scholarly aptitude.
- Other useful information to include:
- A description of the job, program, scholarship, or graduate school.
- If the application requires a specific recommendation form, include a copy or a link.
- Where letters should be sent.
- How letters should be sent; many are electronic submissions now, so don’t assume your letter-writer knows this. A stamped, addressed envelope is a nice touch, but not always necessary.
- How to address the letter. I always prefer a name or office over the generic “To Whom it May Concern."
- Anything specific the letter-writer should mention: our working relationship, specific projects, character traits, etc.
- Ask your recommender what else they would need to help in completing the letter.
Be sure to keep letter writers up to date on your progress. I always enjoy hearing once students have been admitted to a program, if/when they receive a scholarship, and whether they got the job or not. A thank you note at the end of your process helps the recommender know their time was valued, and keeps the door open for you to ask for subsequent letters in the future. I’ve had students come back to me for letters for multiple programs, and my willingness to agree oftentimes is driven by how they handled themselves the first time around.
To you letter-writers, remember that you once were in the position of asking, so make every attempt to give a little of your time toward this process. To those seeking recommendations, get your information together, think ahead, and good luck.
Does anyone else have recommendations?
is the Associate Director, Ohio Union at Ohio State University.
Jeff oversees building operations including event production, audio-visual, shipping and receiving, and office administration. He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Boston College and a master’s in higher education and student affairs from The Ohio State University. He has been an ACUI volunteer at the regional and international level since 2003 and is active on social media, figuring out his digital identity alongside the students, colleagues, and mentors who aren’t bored with his posts and updates.