Spring break + A Little Effort = Better Recommendation Letters


Spring break + A Little Effort = Better Recommendation Letters

— from the PI’s desk

No matter if your career track is a pre-X (pre-med, pre-grad, pre-dental, pre-vet, etc.), or you're headed for the job market after graduation, you'll need recommendation letters along the way.

Invest 1 hour of your spring break to do a little prep work so it's easier to secure those recommendation letters before your professors are crushed with the pre-summer activity rush.

Here's a breakdown of how to spend that 1 hour.

Step 1: Update your resume. Set aside 20 minutes. Granted, it might be a couple of months before you need it, but this isn't a fun chore to do so it's easy to put off. If you've been maintaining a file of your accomplishments as detailed in Keep Track of All You Do--Your Future Self Will Thank You this won't take as long to do than if you're starting from scratch. Either way, resist the urge to put task off. You'll need your resume for job and pre-x applications and your mentors and professors will be able to write more rounded letters if they know about your awesomeness beyond what you did in office hours or the lab.

Plus, you want time to have a professional on your campus go over your resume and give you feedback on how to strengthen it. I've known plenty of researchers (at all career levels) who devalue certain achievements or accomplishments because they aren't "flashy" enough or aren't awards. But when you're starting out, resumes can, and should, have more than your most noteworthy accomplishments. (Full disclosure, even as a professor not all items on my CV are flashy but they give more complete picture of what I do.)

After spring break, follow up with the undergrad research office or career center for professional guidance on formatting and strengthening your resume.

Step 2: Build a reference list. Set aside 10 minutes. The list length depends on the number, and quality, of the professional relationships you've developed in college. If three potential references immediately come to mind (based on your previous interactions with these individuals) you'll be done with this step fast. If not, take more time to make a longer list. You might need to ask as many as 5 or 10 potential references to secure 3 letters.

Your goal with this step is to start thinking about who might be good references for you from the people you've interacted with in classes, office hours, as a volunteer or at your job, and, of course, during your research experiences. These professional relationships you've established are first ones to consider. Once, my co-creator of this site encouraged an undergrad to apply for a prestigious research internship and the student replied to her, "But I don't have anyone who could write a letter for me." Also, anyone who previously wrote a recommendation letter for you--for any reason--should definitely be on this list!

Step 3: Customize. Set aside 30 minutes. If you plan to ask your research mentor for a recommendation letter, write three to five short statements (each one or two sentences), detailing what you learned or gained from your research experience.

Those who invest time in training, advising, or mentoring appreciate it when it a student is aware of the benefits they've gained from their research experience. It's always nice when a student says, "I appreciate everything you've done," but when accompanied with specific examples that can be incorporated into a recommendation letter, it's so, so very helpful to the person writing the letter.

In addition, it's easier for you to remember what your accomplishments are than it is for your advisor to remember them. Whether or not your PI asks you to write a self-assessment letter, putting together a few statements of what you have gained will make it easier for them to write a stronger, more thorough letter.

Plus, the sooner you start thinking about what you have gained from your research experience, the more realizations you'll have before you officially ask for the letter. You'll have time to add more statements, or edit them, if you think additional ones.

These three steps will help you prepare to ask to recommendation letters sometime after spring break. When you're ready to start the process of connecting with your mentors and potential references, read The One Letter to Rule Them All for a strategy on helping others write the strongest letter possible.