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Science 101: Recommendation Letters! (Shudders)

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Bwog’s semi-regular science advice column, Science 101, is back this week. In today’s edition, Science Editor and junior biology major Alex Tang provides tips on asking for (and getting) good recommendation letters, a skill that STEM students will need to utilize for summer programs, grad school applications, etc.

For many students, there’s something inherently awkward about asking a superior to provide for them a page or two of praise. Students should know, however, that letters of recommendation are a rite of passage in science. The very professors, lab mentors, or bosses you’re asking letters from have themselves asked for letters in the past, and know exactly how you feel. Furthermore, it’s likely that these people have already provided lots of letters in the past, and are used to the process. Keeping that in mind should help, if you feel nervous when requesting a letter of recommendation. Here are some tried-and-true tips to go through the process as smoothly as possible.

  • Think about how you want to be portrayed in your application. There are many aspects of you as an applicant, and as a person. You’re primarily a student, but you’re also a researcher, a volunteer, a teacher, and/or a leader, etc. Based on your personal strengths, as well as the program you’re applying for, you may want to select your recommendation letter writers from the activities in your life that will best describe you as an applicant.
    • The point is that, ideally, you want each of your recommenders to mention unique aspects about their positive interactions with you. For example, if you’re applying to a summer research program, you’ll definitely want to provide a recommendation letter from your last PI or lab mentor to elaborate on your research skills. You might also decide to provide a letter from your volunteer organization, which demonstrates causes that you’re passionate about.
  • Put yourself in your writer’s shoes. You’ll get a better letter if your recommender knows you (by name at least) and has had sustained interactions with you in the past. If not, you might end up getting an impersonal, lukewarm letter. Furthermore, think about your prior interactions with this person, and make sure that, to the best of your knowledge, you’ve made a good impression on them. A good rule of thumb is to imagine the following scenario: if you passed this person on College Walk, would the two of you wave or greet each other?

  • Ask them courteously. I personally find that it’s better to ask your recommenders in person, although it’s fine to ask by email too. Concisely tell your recommenders about the programs you’re applying to, and ask if it would be possible for them to provide a recommendation letter. If you’re asking via email, be polite and to-the-point.
  • Provide supplementary information for your recommender. A tip that has worked well for lots of students is to provide their recommenders with supplementary information about themselves. This information would include the types of programs they’re applying to, what they’re hoping to get out of the program, and how their own experiences and backgrounds would be a good fit with the program. In doing so, you’re giving your recommender more positive things to write about, which is always a good thing.
  • Ask early (one of the reasons why we’re publishing this post this time of year). This tip is pretty obvious, but is still often ignored. Try to ask your recommenders at least a month in advance. If worst comes to worst, you can explain your situation (how you just found out about a program, etc) and ask for a letter, closer to the deadline. You should never ask for a letter of recommendation within a week (or two) of the deadline!
  • Provide clear instructions on how to upload or send your letter of recommendation. Make the process as easy as possible for your recommenders by providing unambiguous instructions on when and where to send the letter. If necessary, remind your recommenders about your letter about a week and/or a couple days before the deadline.
  • Remember to thank your recommenders! At the very least, send them a courteous email expressing your appreciation. You never know if you’ll want them to write you another letter in the future – also, it’s just a nice thing that you should do.

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