Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
We all need letters of recommendation for things we apply for: internships, jobs, fellowships, further schooling. In all cases, the letters will need to evaluate your character, intelligence, and accomplishments. However, not every recommender can be equally persuasive about all your wonderful qualities. Some can emphasize more your character, imagination, energy and leadership; others, your intellectual potential and academic accomplishments. While you are at Cornell, you can ask for letters from faculty and staff who know you in a capacity most suitable for what you are applying for.
As you go about soliciting recommendations for various opportunities, you can at the same time ask recommenders who know you best or are likely to be most impressed with you in some capacity to post copies of their letters to a permanent and confidential computerized credential file. To register for the credential service go to: http://www.career.cornell.edu/resources/credential-service.cfm. If you have questions about this service, come to Arts and Sciences Career Services, G-55 Goldwin Smith Hall. Then, once you have left Cornell, you can — at the click of a mouse — direct those letters be forwarded to those who ask for them. Of course, you will always need to solicit letters from people whose knowledge of you is recent, but letters from Cornell teachers, advisors and staff are likely to be useful about your career here long after you have graduated.
If you plan to apply to law school or medical school, there are specific procedures to follow in requesting letters of recommendation. For law school information, go to: http://as.cornell.edu/academics/advising/prelaw/apply.cfm. For information about medical http://www.career.cornell.edu/paths/health/medschool/index.cfm.
It is advantageous to leave Cornell with letters of recommendation on file that you can use in the immediate future. Tracking down recommenders several years after they have worked with you is sometimes difficult, and the letters people write when their memories of you have become hazy are sometimes less than concrete and persuasive.
Students often feel uncomfortable asking their instructors to write letters of recommendation. They worry that:
- My instructor doesn't know me well or may not remember me.
- My instructor is very busy.
The Best Way to Ask
As for the first worry, ask for letters of recommendation from instructors who have evaluated your work and in whose courses you have done well.
- An instructor who knows your work knows you better than you think.
- Include some small classes in your program of study, classes in which your instructors learn your ways of thinking and patterns of performance.
- If you need recommendations early in your undergraduate career, before you have the opportunity to take small courses in your major or in upper-level electives, ask your instructor in your FWS or introductory calculus course, or a TA in a large course.
- For post-graduate activities, a recommendation from a faculty member in your major is important.
As for the second worry, faculty members understand that writing letters of recommendation is part of being a teacher. However, it is a good idea to ask people to write on your behalf in a way that allows the recommender to say "sorry, I can't" without hurting your feelings. For example, you can say you understand they may be too busy or feel uncomfortable recommending you for the kind of thing you are applying for. If they agree to write — as they usually will — you can make their task easier if you:
- Request letters well in advance of a due date — two weeks at least
- Provide your recommender with
- your resumé
- copies of some of your best work in her/his class
- a description of the opportunity you are applying for
- the essay you are writing for the application. This might be the personal essay or "statement of purpose."
- all the relevant forms
- stamped addressed envelopes and a summary page with the relevant addresses and due dates
- anything else the recommender asks for (sometimes they ask for a copy of your transcript)
- Close to the due date, e-mail your recommender to ask whether s/he needs any further information from you (this serves as a polite reminder of up-coming due dates).
- Thank your recommenders and inform them of the outcomes of your applications.