Whether it’s applying for a job or to graduate schools, excellent recommendations can be a huge boost for you and set you apart from the rest of applicants. They are often overlooked because it’s easy for them to feel out of your control. If you’re preparing to apply for something that requires applications, this guide will help you get the stellar recommendations you know you deserve, even if you’re a bit unfamiliar or out of touch have with these recommenders.

Whether you're applying to a job, graduate school, a fellowship, or any application, your recommendations are important. The good news is, there's plenty you can do to boost your recommendation quality and ensure they're the best they can be! Click here to find out (with a free checklist included)!

Whether you're applying to a job, graduate school, a fellowship, or any application, your recommendations are important. The good news is, there's plenty you can do to boost your recommendation quality and ensure they're the best they can be! Click here to find out (with a free checklist included)!

I have a theory that we put pressure on far too many “important things” in life because of how we think they will affect our future. In reality, likely 90% of those things won’t really influence your future at all. So, we’re better off giving all efforts to only 10% of those things. Doing those few to the fullest extent can really pay off. As my father says:

“bigger is not better, better is better.”

Recommendations are one of those things that can really become excellent with that extra 10% of work. This means you actually have control over a big part of your application.

Let’s get crackin’.

1- Who to write your recommendations?

The first step to getting great recommendations is figuring out who to recommend you. I know this can sound intimidating and not fun, especially if you’ve been out of school for a couple of years. Or, if you’re applying for a job that would like professional references, but you haven’t told your boss you may quite.

Applying to grad school:

Remember a couple things: your professors want to help you. Even if you don’t have a great relationship with them, they still can be potentials for excellent recommendations. To be blunt, your success is in their best interest, too! The higher and greater success of a schools’ alumni, the better the school reflects. Thus, the better reflection of these professors’ jobs. If you’re having trouble figuring out which professor to ask, think of the classes you enjoyed the most and/or did the most writing for. Even if the class was large and you felt anonymous, they can be great resources. If you haven’t spoke in awhile, ask them to meet for coffee so you can catch up.

Applying for a job:

If your twenties, you might not have a list of previous employers on speed dial. That’s okay! First off, the hiring team at whatever position you’re applying to is aware of your age. It would be weird if you had several readily available employers to recommend you. That means you’ve likely skipped around at jobs a lot. I would recommend trying to have at least one professional reference, but you can think out of the box! Did you work at a coffee shop in college? If you interned, who oversaw some of your projects? Have you volunteered with an organization with someone who’d write for you? Try to think of someone who could vouch for your skills that this job is looking for.

If you need more than one reference and only have one professional one to give, don’t be afraid to ask professors. Again, employers know that if you’re in your young twenties, you’ve spent more time in school than in the professional world. If you have a professor that worked on a school club with you or you particularly excelled at research with, those are great options for recommenders.

2- Create recommendations folders

Great- you have recommenders that have agreed to write for you! Now it’s important to make the entire process as easy for them as possible. This is where I think going that extra 10% above and beyond will make the 90% difference.
Create folders or packets to present to your recommenders including the following information:

1. Resume and Transcript

This should be the resume that you are sending in with your application to your job or to your school. You only need to include your transcript if you’re submitting your transcript with your application (usually just school).

2. One or two pieces of your work from his or her class (for professors)

This is a small task for you that will go a long way with the professor. First, it shows that you specifically thought of him or her for a reason. It shows you weren’t just picking a professor that replied. It also saves them work and this where I think you can still achieve a great letter of recommendation from a professor you may not know so well. Providing the work you did will make the  process much easier than trying to pull out memories of your interaction in class. If applying to graduate school, they can easily relate your proficiencies in the subject from your work. You can even provide your graded work with their commentary. This is an extra easy way for her to remember what she thought of my work.

3. Prepaid, addressed envelopes to schools or jobs

Make sure that you know the procedure for sending the recommendations to this various school or this various job. For instance, I know that the Law School Admissions Committee requires a cover page to be generated and included in the recommendation submission. You should generate those forms for the professors and print them out. Then, include a post-it on it that says to include these cover pages with each letter.

Those receiving recommendations will always trust their content more if they are confident that they applicant hasn’t seen these letters. Make sure you follow the formalities.

Schools and/or jobs may accept recommendations as electronic submissions. So, sometimes this item isn’t necessary. I would still recommend providing the manual way and leaving the choice of how to send up to the professor.

4. Small ‘about me’ section

Here, you should briefly state why you want to go graduate school or why you want this job.

If you’re going to graduate school:

Helpful information here could include:

a. Why you’re going at this time;
b. Your plans afterward (what you plan to do with this degree);
c. Your entrance exam score (GRE/GMAT/LSAT);
d. You also can briefly outline extracurricular activities you hope to pursue in school, and I’ll explain more about why that’s a good idea below.

If you’re applying for a job:

Helpful information here could include:

a. Why you’re leaving your current job;
b. Why this job is more in line with your career goals;
c. What strengths you feel you have/have demonstrated that will make you excel in this role.

5. Small ‘about’ sections for the place you’re applying

If you’re going to graduate school:

Outline briefly each school that you’re applying to. Make clear why you’d be a great fit to that school specifically. You also should include their average entrance exam scores so the professor has an idea of where your numbers match up. Think of this as sort of a dating website operation for you and your graduate schools.

For instance, if may write that you’re interested in a full-time internship one summer. Then explain one of the schools you’re applying to is located in a city and has great access to internships. This is an easy way for your professor to point out why you’d be a great fit for that school and makes the letter much more genuine. Another example could be if you hope to involve yourself with groups on campus and another school boasts their strong campus life.

These are easy ways for your letter to become more personalized and the school to get a feel for why you’d be great not only as a graduate student but as a student at that school. This should be very easy for you to do. If not, you should reflect on why you really want to go to that school in the first place.

Now, asking professors to write different letters for every school you apply to can be a lot to ask. However, I still do recommend my folder and tips above, because ideally, professors can write one broad letter. Then include just one paragraph that will be changed for each school. To write that paragraph, they should be able to basically paraphrase what you’ve written here. Especially because you’ve already done a great, concise job of playing matchmaker for these schools! Going through these steps will show the professor you’ve thought out what you want out of your graduate school experience and that you mean business. They’ll take you more seriously and that will reflect in their letter.

If you’re applying for a job:

Write a small blurb about this company, including its traits, principals, work-life culture, and mission, and why you think your work ethic and experience will be a great fit for this. You can take some of this off of your cover letter, too. You want to be the cupid of your career and this company, and show your recommender what a great fit you are so that he or she has no issue illustrating that point when writing recommendations.

3- Have Coffee with Them

Now that you have your great folders, you’re ready to meet with your recommenders. You want to basically summarize what’s in the folder you’re giving them so that there’s not any confusion. This makes the coffee date actually pleasant, rather than your recommender having to aggressively take notes on everything you’re saying. Simply tell them when you begin that everything is already written down for them, you just want to give them a brief overview. Now this can be a fun conversation! You’ll also have more opportunity for their feedback or advice. Way to make this a stress-free experience for all!

Try to do this as far in advance as you can. You’ve done such a great job preparing, you don’t want to ruin it with the stress of time.

Okay! Good work. You’re on your way to mastering valuable part of applications that others aren’t as aggressively attacking. Plus, if your recommenders have a smooth experience writing for you, they’re very likely to be willing to do so again. You will also learn more about whatever it is you’re applying for while creating your preparation folders.

Organizing this

Need help organizing this? It’s a lot of information. Sign up for my mailing list below and you’ll receive your free recommendations checklist! I used these exact ones for my graduate school recommendations and they saved me. There is one for graduate school and one for jobs. They’ll make sure you’re hitting crossing all your Ts and dotting all your Is on your road to killer recommendations!

Readers- what are your favorite job and school application tips?

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