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. There can be confusion in understanding how these two things are different.

Employers will not ask for a “letter of reference.”

If an employer asks for references, they want a list of people they can contact – not a letter. The CDO has a template for a list of references (in the Job Search Toolkit) that you can use when creating your own. To create a consistent application packet, make sure the font of your references list matches the font of all of your other documents.

Never list references on your resume or in your cover letter. References belong in a list all their own. (Of course, you can discuss a reference in your cover letter if the reference worked for the organization and recommended it to you. Just do not list references there with no context.)

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 and resumes as well – being specific or quantifying your traits makes them more tangible to someone who doesn’t know you.

(2) It is tailored to the specific job in question. An example of a letter of recommendation which really made a difference was when a professor wrote a letter of recommendation for a Shaffer Fellowship applicant that talked about how much the applicant’s drive and commitment to public interest reminded the professor of 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 recommender knows the job and the organization and can add elements to your candidacy that may not already appear in your application documents, you will be a better applicant.

But it shouldn’t be your recommender who does the heavy lifting. You should tell your recommender what you think your documents cover and what things are missing that s/he can explain for you.

Make it as easy as possible for your writer to draft a good letter for you.

If you hit a home run on a project you did for your recommender, 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 specificity is one of the most important things in letters of recommendation.

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

Ask your recommender(s) to write your letter at least one month in advance of the date you actually need it.

That might sound crazy early but it isn’t. Every year during the Shaffer and Bank of America Foundation fellowship application process, at least one late letter of recommendation is received. You need to give your recommenders ample time to work writing 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 we 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 have a great rapport, 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 recommender. 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 on 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 navigating the workplace. Law school does not have standard hours but a work environment does. Someone who has seen you consistently show up from 9-5 and be part of a team needs to be on your list.

If a job posting does not indicate how many references are requested, the default number is 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 handwritten written thank you note for something such as a letter of recommendation has tremendous power because they aren’t extremely common. (I actually have a collection of these. I have saved every single one!)

If you have any questions about references or letters of recommendation, contact the CDO. We’re here to help!

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