Choosing people to write reference/recommendation letters

If you are in the process of applying for university, scholarships, internships etc., chances are you will need to ask for one or more reference letters. By this point you’ve probably had dozens of teachers, many of whom you could ask to write you a letter. But how do you choose? Here are four things to keep in mind to help you whittle down your choices.

Who knows you the best? 

This one is self-explanatory. Many of us will have a teacher or two that you really connect with in secondary school. For me, it was my orchestra teacher who had taught me from grade 7 through grade 12. While my university application did not have a music or orchestra focus, he could attest to how my character and cello playing had matured and excelled over the course of those five years. The best letters not only attest to your academic capabilities, (after all, your academic capabilities can be assessed from your test scores and transcripts) but to your strength of character as well. This applies to asking for recommendation letters in university as well. Many times, teaching assistants (TA) know their students far better than the professor. While you may initially want to seek out a recommendation from the professor running the course, the TA will be able to write you a far more personalized letter. If you run into this situation, ask the TA if they’re willing to have the professor co-sign the letter. Two birds, one stone.

Diversify your letters

I realize this one may be a point of contention depending on which field you are going into and the purpose of your letters. But if you are applying to university, many admissions offices like to see students who are well-rounded. So, if you know that you are more inclined to pursue a STEM field, that’s wonderful, you absolutely will want someone in the STEM field to write you a letter. However, it never hurts for universities to know that you are also adept in English literature. Furthermore, if you are applying to university, not all of your recommendations need to be academic. For example, apart from getting your biology teacher to write you a recommendation letter, consider asking someone who has supervised your extracurricular activities such as a volunteer coordinator or a sports coach.

Reliability = sleeping well at night

Reliability is something you will run into for the rest of your life. Imagine everything else in your application is perfect and is exactly how you want it, but you are just waiting for that one last letter that determines if your application package is complete. There are people, no matter how much you admire, respect, and adore them who will forget to write your recommendation letter. Think back to your interactions with this person. Are they the type of person who is always traveling and is impossible to get a hold of? Or maybe they’re the type that adopts a haughty attitude when they are busy. Everyone leads busy lives, but choose someone who won’t make that a reason for not getting your letter in.

Choose a good writer

We all know mad geniuses who are very comfortable in their niche, so it is important to reflect on your written interactions with your recommender. Many recommenders don’t have someone proofread their letter before they submit. If you find that all of your written interactions with this person cannot distinguish between simple rules such as your/you’re, their/they’re/there, you may want to either ask if you can proofread the letter beforehand or perhaps find someone else to write a letter for you instead.

Finally, remember the importance of recommendation letters are not a one-size-fits-all situation. Depending on what stage of life you are in and where you are applying, the weight recommendation letters have may vary. If you are applying to university, smaller universities may place more weight on recommendation letters while larger ones may only give them a cursory glance. If you’re applying for graduate school or seeking a professional reference, they may actually place a lot of emphasis on your recommendations, making it imperative that you choose your references wisely.

Adrienne has her PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Wisconsin and her MPH in Toxicology from the University of Michigan. In her spare time, she enjoys playing cello, reading, attempting photography, and volunteering at the humane society.

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