References vs. Letters of Recommendation

As you apply for jobs, you will most assuredly be asked for letters of recommendation or references at some point. I find that there is a lot of confusion in understanding how these two things are different so I want to clear that up.

First and foremost, there is no such thing as a “letter of reference.”

If an employer asks for references, they want a list of people they can call; not a letter. The CDO has a references template in our resource center that you can use when creating your list of references. Make sure the font of your references list matches the font of all of your other application documents.

Never list references on your resume or in your cover letter*. References belong in a list of references and that is the only place they belong.

A letter of recommendation is exactly what it sounds like. If an employer asks for one, they want someone to write a letter explaining why you’re awesome and should be hired.

A good letter of recommendation is specific, which means two things:

(1) It tells a specific story about why you’re so great. If your letter says that you are a hard-worker and think outside the box, that is not very exciting but if your letter says that you routinely stayed late at work and developed a new system to eliminate an inefficiency that saved the organization five hours a week, that is extremely meaningful. Note that this lesson applies to cover letters as well.

(2)It is tailored to the specific job you’re applying for. The one time I saw a letter of recommendation really make a difference was when a Professor wrote a letter of recommendation for one of our applicants for the Shaffer Fellowship that talked about how much the applicant’s drive and commitment to public interest reminded the professor about Thomas L. Shaffer, for whom the fellowship is named.

A letter of recommendation can be a tremendous opportunity to explain why you, in particular, regardless of your grades or other objective factors that can be gleaned from your resume have the character traits and abilities needed to perform a job. If your writer can look at the job description and the organization and explain things that you did not have the space to explain in your other application materials, you will be a better applicant.

But it shouldn’t be your writer who does the heavy lifting. You should tell your writer what you feel that your resume and cover letter cover and what things are missing that she can explain for you.

Make it as easy as possible for your writer to draft a good letter for you. I mean really spoon feed them.

If you hit a home run on a project you did for them, ask them to specifically mention that project in the letter. Professors and employers meet a lot of students over the years and even if you were one of the best they have ever seen, they might only have a general impression that you were great but not be able to recall the specifics. And we know that specificity is the #1 most important thing in letters of recommendation.

People are busy and when they agree to write a letter for you, it is time out of their day so if you make it easy for them, they will be extremely grateful and your letter will be better guaranteed.

Ask letter of recommendation writers to write you a letter at least one month in advance of the date you need it by.

That might sound crazy early but it isn’t. Every year that I have run the Shaffer and Bank of America Foundation fellowship application process, I have received a late letter of recommendation. You need to give your writers ample time to work writing the letter into their busy schedule and the less time you give them, the more likely it is to be late, a subpar letter, or both.

When deciding who to ask to serve as a reference or write a letter of recommendation for you, you want to select someone who knows you well and who you are confident will have good things to say about you.

It seems like an obvious insight but I routinely see even experienced professionals agonize over this and overthink it. If you’re applying for an environmental law job, don’t ask your environmental law professor to write a letter for you if he gave you a C. Ask the torts professor who gave you an A.

If you’re asking a professor to write a letter for you, ideally you got a good grade in their class or worked as a Research Assistant for them. If you’re selecting an employer, ideally they gave you consistently good reviews and invited you to come back and work for them at a future time. If you have a feeling that you and a potential reference did not gel, listen to that instinct. If you just do not know who to ask, come to the CDO. We can help you come up with some ideas.

If someone declines your request to write a letter, do not be offended or worry about their reasoning. Just move on with your life. This person has done you a huge favor. They would not have written you a good letter.

It is entirely appropriate to offer to write your own letter of recommendation and submit the draft to the writer. Professors will almost never say yes to this but employers sometimes do. For public interest employers that really do think you are great but are frequently understaffed and just too busy to devote time to writing a good letter, they will really appreciate this offer.

It is best to have a mix of people in your references list, including at least one employer and at least one professor.

If there is no employer on your list, it could lead to the conclusion that you are book-smart but not good at existing in a workplace. Law school is not 9-5 but work is so someone who has seen you consistently show up from 9-5 somewhere has to be on your list.

If the job posting does not indicate how many references they want, the default number is to list three.

Be sure to ask someone before listing them as a reference and send thank you notes to anyone who serves as a reference or writes a letter of recommendation for you. A cute written thank you note has tremendous power and I can tell you every person who has ever written me one off the top of my head.

If you have a burning references list or letter of recommendation question, schedule an appointment with a CDO counselor on symplicity. We’re here to help!

*Of course, you can discuss your references in your cover letter if your reference worked for the organization and recommended them to you. I only object to just listing references there with no context.

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