Korbel MA Students: How to secure a strong recommendation letter

Strong references are typically the second most important part of an application, right after your application essay, statement or cover letter. But, who should you ask? How should you ask? The key to securing strong recommendation letters really is about time, professionalism and being organized. Here are some tips to consider that includes feedback we have received from Korbel faculty:

  1. Develop relationships with those from whom you will later need a reference. In a two-year master’s program, where you may be applying for internships and fellowships in your first or second quarter of studies, you need to start on day one ~ get to know Korbel professors. Go to office hours! Approach those with whom you share research interests. If you are planning to apply for an opportunity that requires references, discuss the opportunity. Let professors know that you’re planning to apply; ask for their advice. Once you’ve established an advising relationship (regardless of whether you’ve taken their classes or have an academic/research relationship), they will know your interests, your background, and be better able to speak to your qualifications for future opportunities.
  2. Ask professors and colleagues who know you well and agree to write a good (ideally, excellent) letter of recommendation. The best letters come from those who know you well and can speak to your strengths, professional contributions, ethics, and skills as they relate to the opportunity for which you are applying. Even if the reference is from someone highly regarded in your field, it will be apparent to the review committee if they don’t know you well, and the letter won’t be specific enough to reflect well! When you request letters, ask specifically if references can write a good (or excellent) letter. This gives them the opportunity to tell you whether you should seek the reference from someone else.
  3. Don’t wait until the last minute! Plan ahead and remember people are busy! Give those you are asking at least three weeks (ideally a whole month or more if possible). Asking early will not only give you time to find an alternative reference if needed, but it will also give you time to prep your reference with content to include in the letter.
  4. Provide as much information as possible. Ask your references to speak to your qualifications and to give specific and relevant examples of your work. Prep your references with bullet points:
      • about the opportunity for which you are applying,
      • your qualities, skills, knowledge and experience relevant to what the review committee is seeking,
      • your relevant academic accomplishments, work history, research conducted, etc.,
      • MOST IMPORTANTLY – a draft of your application essay/statement/cover letter!
  1. Tell them your deadlines up front. Follow up any verbal requests with written/emailed details including the due date.
  2. Send reminders. Between one and two weeks before your deadline, send your letter writer a reminder of the due date. Be polite and follow up respectfully if you haven’t received confirmation that it is in progress. Until it has been submitted, you can email gentle reminders. Often, a follow-up conversation during office hours or at the end of class is more effective than sending an email.
  3. Say thank you. Take time to write a personal thank you once your application materials have been submitted (a verbal thank you is important, sending an email is nice, and sending a hand-written thank you is really nice!). A thank you is always appreciated and will make it more likely they will write another recommendation for you in the future.
  4. Let them know what happened. Whether or not you were successful, let your references know the outcome of your application and thank them again. Showing appreciation will make it more likely they are willing to help you again.

Need advice on who to ask, your approach or how to prepare materials for your references? Schedule an appointment with one of our Career Advisors. Appointments can be scheduled on PCO or email us at korbelcareers@du.edu.

By Jamie Polliard
Jamie Polliard Internship Program & Office Manager