How should I handle letters of recommendation?

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Charlene at Emerson College asked:letters-of-recommendation

I’m applying for several academic positions that require letters of recommendation. Is a general letter, which I can easily forward to each job listing, better than a specific letter sealed for each posting? What’s the best way to go about this?

Thanks for your question, Charlene. A professional letter of recommendation from someone who knows you well can pack a punch while you’re job hunting, but only when requested by the employer. A letter of recommendation is distinctly different from a reference (a list of names and contact information of people who can vouch for you), so be mindful of what is required when applying.

It may be tempting to scatter-shot your application to as many positions as possible, but I would advise you to avoid this tactic. The job-search process is less effective when rushed and cutting corners will only hurt you in the long run. A handful of well-crafted and tailored applications with specific letters of recommendation will get you much closer to your goal of employment than a dozen generic ones.

Letters of recommendation require timing.

Once you have a position selected, make sure you have enough time before the deadline to ask for a letter. Asking a mentor, professor, or supervisor for a letter of recommendation is a special request, so be mindful of their time and effort in helping you. Remember your etiquette when requesting letters, and give your recommender a minimum of 3 weeks to write your letter.

Begin preparing the rest of your application in the mean time, tailoring your packet to the position and highlighting your skills and achievements for the employer. Make a targeted, clean and tight application packet that will only be enhanced by shining letters of recommendation.

Every week, pick a couple more positions and begin the process again so you have a steady conveyor belt of applications. Keep close track of which employers you’ve already contacted, which have yet to respond, and which recommenders are sending letters to which institutions. Rather than scattering your resume to the winds, you’re making tactical, calculated strikes.

Help your recommender help you!

Once your recommender has agreed to give you a recommendation, give them all the information they need to write the best possible letter. This includes information about the position, examples of your achievements, and what you would like for the letter to highlight. No matter how well your recommender may know you, they cannot read your mind, so do the hard work for them.

You’ll want to make the process as streamlined as possible for your recommender, especially if you’re using their recommendations for several positions. Services like Interfolio have become commonplace for academics to sort, compile and share their work. Your recommender can submit a sealed letter of recommendation to your Interfolio dossier, free of charge, and you can then handle dispensing the letter wherever it needs to go.

Make it easy and painless for your recommender, and they will not hesitate in the future to write additional letters for you.

Best of luck,


About the Author

Esme Smith

Esme received her M.A. In Counseling from St. Edward's University, and worked with students at Concordia University Texas' Career Center. She developed a passion for Career Counseling after leaving undergrad without much guidance, and grappling with unsatisfying work. She strives to help others bridge the gap between graduation and "the real world."

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