References and letters of recommendation are among the materials you may be asked to provide an employer during a job search or submit when applying for a grant/scholarship or to graduate school. It is important to understand the distinction between them and how to appropriately request them.
Employers often request references, so it is best to prepare a list of 3-4 references at the time of your interview. Current students should plan to provide a combination of academic and professional references. As you begin your job search, it’s best to ask your professional contacts or professors in advance if they will be willing to serve as a reference for you and speak positively about your contribution. Think about people with which you have had significant contact who can attest to your work and character. It is helpful to provide your potential references with your resume, the job description and a sample of the work that you completed during your time of employment or while in their class. Once they agree to be a reference for you, you will want to provide the following information about your reference to a prospective employer.
References should not be included on your resume but should be prepared on a separate sheet of paper, with your resume header at the top of the page. Make sure you let your references know when you have submitted their contact information to an employer, along with details about the position so they can provide appropriate information on your behalf. Thank them after they have been contacted and update them on your employment status.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are different from reference lists because you are asking someone to a write a letter recommending you for a graduate program, grant/scholarship, or position. Most employers will request a list of references, but you may choose to supply letter(s) of recommendation as supplemental materials. Below you will find a list of things to consider when requesting letters of recommendation.
Ask people with whom you have had significant contact, who think well of you, and would be able to write a strong recommendation for you. Consider asking professors, mentors, supervisors, colleagues, coaches, etc. If possible, consider asking people connected to your interest area.
Give them the opportunity to say no if they feel they do not know you well enough or would not be able to write a positive and thoughtful letter for you. An example of this would be, “I’d appreciate a recommendation from you if you feel you know me well enough to write a letter supporting my application to graduate school." If they say no they are doing you a favor by allowing you to find someone else to write a strong letter of recommendation, rather than a mediocre one.
Schedule time to speak with your recommender to provide them additional information (e.g., resume or relevant examples of your work, a list of accomplishments/contributions, information about the graduate program/grant/scholarship/employment opportunity, deadlines, etc.), and let them know why you believe they are qualified to recommend you. Even if you do not know the program/job for which you will be using the letter, it is helpful to have a conversation about the type of work you are interested in pursuing so the letter has a specific focus.
Make your request well in advance of the deadline, at least a month, but more time is better. Faculty members receive many requests for letters and you want to make sure they have time to craft a thoughtful recommendation for you.
A good rule of thumb is to obtain three letters of recommendation.
Remember to thank those who recommended you and update them on your outcome.