A couple weeks ago I gave you several tips for wrapping up your summer internship… one of those tips being, “ask for a letter of recommendation”. Truth is, asking for a letter of recommendation (LOR) is a lot more complex than I made it seem in my one paragraph tip. I myself am currently in the process of gaining LORs from several contacts at former internships for law school applications, and let me tell you… I know how confusing and sensitive the whole deal is.
This time, I’m going to give you all of the information you are entitled to know before asking for a letter of recommendation.
Jump on it
As soon as your internship is nearing to an end, take the time to approach your supervisor in person and ask if they’d be willing to write a LOR on your behalf. This way, your performance is still fresh in their mind. It never hurts to ask for a LOR simply to have one handy for future opportunities. The general rule is to have 2-3 on file at any given time.
Choose your approach
Schedule a time to meet with your supervisor in their office; don’t spring the big question on them in passing. Meeting with the recommender in person is the most professional and preferred method, but if you are unable to do so don’t freak out. For whatever reason, if you can’t meet with them in person, I personally feel like a well-written email is acceptable, as long as you treat it like a formal letter.
How to ask
I like to split the process of asking for a LOR into two main steps: getting the recommender to agree to write the letter, and giving them the details. This way, you aren’t overwhelming them with too many specifics right off the bat.
Get them to agree
Obviously the main aspect of this step is simply asking if they will write you a LOR, but you need to be prepared to let them know why they should.
Be clear about what purpose you are seeking the LOR for, whether it's for future employment opportunities, grad school, law school, etc. This will give them an idea of what angle to take when writing the LOR. Be ready to explain why you are seeking the opportunity... such as what you plan to study in grad school and why you want to study that subject.
Set a deadline (give them AT LEAST a month) and let them know it, but don’t expect them to remember just from this initial contact.
Be a stickler for details
After they agree to write you a LOR (and surely they will since you were such a good intern), follow-up by mailing them a formal letter with all of the specific details and repeating what you mentioned during the initial contact. A letter that can be physically handled is preferential because it’s less likely to get lost than an email and enclosures can be read more easily. Your letter should include, once again, why you are asking for a LOR, what the deadline is, and any other instructions (official letterhead, where to send it, etc.).
One of the secrets to scoring a killer LOR is to essentially write it yourself. I don’t mean actually writing the entire letter yourself, but detailing what you want the recommender to say about you. “I was hoping maybe you could talk about how I'm the best intern you have ever had, and that any employer would be lucky to have me,” is probably not going to cut it, but letting them know you are hoping they could mention particular things in the letter such as your magnetic personality, or how you dealt with problems, such as that time you saved the entire office from a swarm of killer bees.
In one of the latest letters I wrote asking for a LOR for law school, I said…
“My other references will be able to talk about my academic ability, but you really know the extent of my written and oral communication skills, such as my ability to read and listen effectively. Several examples I thought of include analyzing bill texts and communicating with constituents and other Senate staff. I was hoping maybe you could talk about how I handle stress and think critically to solve problems, because those are qualities the selection committee wants to see. One example of this would how I unexpectedly handled the management of the office during [the legislative assistant’s] brief absence.”
Enclose what they need
You definitely want to at least enclose a current resume. Other materials you can include are a writing sample, transcript, and anything else applicable to the specific situation you are getting the LOR for. For my situation, aside from the required LSAC cover sheet that needed to be included with the LOR, I enclosed a brief article about how to write LORs for law school for their reference, and because the process is very specific.
Also, if the letter needs to be sent somewhere, make sure to include an envelope and postage as to not cause any more trouble for the recommender.
Say thanks... then say it again
You should be saying thank you every step of the way… after they initially agree, when you send the follow-up materials, and definitely after you receive the LOR or confirmation that it was sent to where it needs to go. Writing a good LOR should take quite a bit of time for the recommender, so be grateful. A handwritten thank you note is obligatory after the process is completed. Updating the recommender on whether or not you got the opportunity the letter was being used for, is another good way to keep your name in their mind and maintain a good relationship with them for future opportunities.
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