Questions Answered: Whom should I ask to write recommendation letters?

Signing LetterQuestion: I’m applying for a summer research job for students at a college near my home. I’m a sophomore bio major and I worked at a lab in my own college during the fall and the job sounds pretty interesting but I’m nervous cause I haven’t had to apply to anything like this before. The application says to give 4 letters of recommendation plus an essay. I don’t know who to get to write letters. I have a coach I can ask. Would it be bad to ask my high school guidance counselor? He knew me pretty well, but I haven’t seen him in more than two years. And where should I get the fourth letter? I don’t know too many people back home anymore. ~ Abby T., Tempe, AZ

Answer: A summer research opportunity can be a very beneficial experience, especially if it is doing work that you might want to do long-term. Typically, colleges ask for letters of recommendation from people who have observed your work, and even better, people who have supervised your work. Ideally, these are people who have seen your research ability and can speak knowledgeably about your capacity to conduct research. Most colleges also typically prefer to see letters written by faculty. You mentioned working at a lab at your college. Would the supervisor at your college’s lab be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation? Perhaps you could also ask a biology professor who is familiar with your work? Do you have any other professors who have observed your research or academic work? Even a letter written by a faculty member from a different department who can write a strong letter on your behalf can be powerful. If you can get three of the four letters written by faculty at your own college, that would be good. A current work supervisor of a campus job would also be a good person to ask to write a letter.

I am not sure that your high school guidance counselor would be able to write a strong letter for you at this point in time. Since it has been more than a few years since you worked with him.  And since he likely did not observe or oversee your research or lab work, you may want to go with a different professional. As for your coach, it depends on how long it has been since you worked with him or her. It also depends on how strongly they can speak on behalf of your skills. A coach may be able to offer valuable insights on your work ethic, professionalism, ability to contribute to a team environment, dedication, etc.  If this is the case, then he may be a good person to ask. The key to strong letters is that the writers feels confident that you can do the research job, and can fully support (with evidence) why they think you’d do a good job.

When asking for a letter, remember to ask if the person is comfortable writing you a strong, positive, letter of recommendation. You really don’t want a wish-washy or vague letter. To help the writer, you might want to bring along a copy of your transcript, the description of the research job, your resume, and possibly some samples of your work from the class that you took with the faculty member. You want to make it as easy as possible for the writer to remember the work you did – and how good it was! Be certain to follow the application’s guidelines for submission of the letters. If they ask them to be physically mailed in, provide the writer a stamped, addressed envelop. If the letter needs to be uploaded to a website, provide the writer detailed instructions, and tell them what format the letter needs to be in, (i.e. PDF, DOC or DOCX).  Likewise, if the letter is supposed to be emailed, give your letter writers the name, title and email address of the person to whom the letter should be sent.

Finally, I suggest giving the writer as much time as possible. A month’s notice is best. Try to give them a deadline that is at least one week earlier than the actual deadline. You can follow up with your letter writers, but do so respectfully. Some writers appreciate the nudge, while others find it annoying.

Best of luck!

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