1. Attach your CV or Resume to the Request.
As a person writing a letter of recommendation (LOR), it’s really helpful for the person to attach their resume or CV (an academic resume) to their email. Why? Because your resume tells me a lot about the types of jobs you are applying for, the background you have for a job, and what you have to say about yourself. You can see my CV here, and you can note how it’s written, what kind of info it includes (because I’m an academic), and the professional tone it takes. If I’m asking my boss for a LOR, I’d include my resume, so that he can note the dates I worked, the things I did, and generally how awesome I am. :)
Including your resume or CV is the number one best thing you can include when asking for a LOR – as long as you’re honest. If you fudged details about your employment, the tasks you have done, the reasons you moved on to a new job, or certain details, this is a sure way to make your old boss angry. In general, making stuff up for your resume or CV is a terrible, awful, appalling, super unscrupulous idea – but if you’re asking for a LOR, you might as well kiss your chances of getting that job goodbye. If there is any question of whether you can include something on your CV – ask your boss or advisor.
2. Google examples, and look for great old letters
As the person writing a LOR, I have googled all kinds of terms “letter of recommendation,” “academic LOR,” “biologist LOR,” “student LOR,” ad nauseum. There are all kinds of great letters out there, if you don’t know how to start, or what to say. Here is a great post on what to include in an academic LOR. Basically, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Use some examples from the web as a template for writing. Then, weave your employee’s details into the letter. Here’s an example of a LOR I wrote for a student, applying for a PhD program.
Be careful here, though. If you straight copy and paste a LOR from the internet, it can bite you. Just as I would never suggest a student copy and paste a whole website, and claim it as their term paper, never copy and paste a LOR and claim it’s for your employee. You will INVARIABLY miss a “she”, that should have been a “he.” You’ll use a different font for part of the letter, and it will look jumbled. You’ll put an old student’s info into a new student’s letter. Don’t copy and paste old letters, and try to pass them off as your own. Not only will it make YOU look bad, as the letter writer, it will make the potential hire or student look bad too. If you’re not willing to put in the legwork for writing the LOR, consider turning down the request.
Also, never send a Word Document. Always save your document as a PDF. First, you never want the recipient of your letter to look at the track changes, and you never want to risk old formatting reappearing in a weird way. I got a letter once that showed the person who had written it just changed the name of the student, and sent it to me. I wondered how many other people had received letters like that? Was the person writing it lazy? Did he not care enough about the student to change the details? Make it a PDF. Anyone can read it then, regardless of whether they have Word or not.
3. If you are asking for a LOR, tell the writer SPECIFICALLY what you want in the letter (and suck up a bit too)
I was asked for three letters of recommendation for my application to the doctoral program at UA. As my past advisor, I would be honored if you’d write a letter for me. I was hoping you could address the following”
- My TA position in the Fall of 2012, where I taught three NSB labs.
- My mentoring position with the new TAs in Spring 2013
- My research on (insert something really, really biology-y that I don’t understand)
- My work saving baby sea turtles from drowning
Attached is my CV. The letter is due by March 13th.
Thank you so much, and if you need any further info, please let me know.
You have essentially taken the guesswork out of what you want. The person writing the letter for you can insert their own flair, or their perception of you, but what you're asking for includes some talking points, which makes the whole LOR writing process easier.
I wish I would have known this when asking for my own LOR years ago, when applying to my doc program. Let me share my pain. Yes, this actually almost sent me into a fetal position years ago. If "WTF?!?!?! had been around as a saying in 2009, I would have said it. These are the real emails, un-doctored, except to remove the names of the innocent. (I actually had flashbacks to this process, and it wasn’t pleasant). Re-reading these emails still makes me want to die.
Here is what the doctoral program at my school asked for:
The following are the requirements for application to our Doctoral Programs. These need completed and turned into our department by October 1, 2009.
1. Application for Elementary/Secondary (GPA 3.5)
2. MAT or GRE Scores
4. 3 Letters of Academic Reference
5. Official Transcripts
6. Statement of Purpose Letter
7. Agreement to Advise Form (completed)”
Here is the email I sent to my three writers:
As you may know, I have been deciding on a career path, which has led me in the direction of Ed Administration. As I have worked for the University of Akron, I have been led to write the curriculum for my Natural Science Biology course, and am seeking to work with the Science and Technology middle school.
After several PhD classes, I have chosen to pursue a PhD in Curricular and Instructional Studies. I am hoping to lead science teachers on a path to challenging their students through critical thinking and problem-based learning.
I am requesting your help.
I need three letters of academic reference for the program. Included in the letter would be information that would show I would be a good candidate for a PhD, that I am likely to finish, and that I have maintained high standards in academia.
I am on a deadline of October 1st, which means that if you can get the letters to me ASAP, that would be most appreciated. My University address is:
The University of Akron
Biology Dept ASEC
Attn Amy Hollingsworth
Akron,. OH 44325-3908
or if you prefer to email me, you may respond to this address.
Thank you so much for your support in my pursuit of my PhD!”
Man, I'm actually kind of proud of myself, and this letter I sent, back before I knew so much about LORs. I'm a wordy chick!
Here is the reply email I got from one of my writers. He’s a great guy, he was one of my pillars of support, and he honestly thought this was going to get me into grad school:
“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, Amy Hollingsworth was one of my most dedicated, intellectual, and professional students. I recommend her without reservation. (XXX) Professor of Math and Education”
That’s it. I still cringe. What the heck? I was worth TWO SENTENCES??? Maybe it’s the math in him… didn’t prefer words… sigh…
Don’t take the chance that this will be YOUR letter of recommendation. I did have to ask another professor to write one for me, on the fly. Put the time into asking for what you want.