Ask La Bricoleuse: Letters of Recommendation advice

Today's topic for those considering application to an MFA program: letters of recommendation.

I get asked to write letters of recommendation by former students fairly often--for jobs and fellowship applications in the case of former grad students, and because on rare occasions i have undergraduates in my courses, occasionally for grad school applications as well. And clearly, I see dozens of them when I look through the files of applicants to our own program each year. (I don't make any of the acceptance decisions here, BTW, i just read through the applications and offer feedback when asked.) 

Graduate programs and scholarship committees and the like pay particular note of these letters; just as your statement of purpose and your portfolio represent how you professionally present yourself, the letters represent the impression you have left on others in your professional and academic career thusfar.

In terms of who you should ask, i've mentioned in earlier posts in this series that you need to choose people who have not a single bad thing to say about you, but also who are not your own mom/spouse/BFF. If you don't have three people whom you are certain can write letters to this effect, you need to evaluate why and work on acquiring those references before applying. 

If you have more than three people you are considering (and i say "three," as that's the common number of recommendations requested, though maybe you need two or four, depending on the application), i advise making a spreadsheet or a chart with the following categories for each applicant, to help in choosing which three:

  1. Length of Acquaintance: How long has this person known you? Have you stayed in contact? Someone you took a class with for three months five years ago may not be able to write as extensive a recommendation as someone you have worked for over the past year. Then again, the professor from five years ago might be someone you've kept up with who really champions your career, while the boss from the last year's job might still be bitter about when you showed up hungover the day after your birthday last month. Use your judgement; it's just one factor to consider.
  2. Relationship to the Program: Do you know anyone who's an alum of the program? Or who is a former classmate or colleague of the department head? Again, this is a case where you need to use your judgment. It's no good having a recommendation from someone with a connection to the program who barely knows you and can't say much about your worthiness as a candidate, and it's definitely no good having a recommendation from someone who's an alum that didn't do very well in the program! And, even a glowing recommendation from a colleague of the department head won't automatically get you in if your personal statement and portfolio aren't up to snuff, or if you interview poorly, etc etc. If it's an option you have though, it can be a good augmentation. 
  3. Experience in the Field: Ideally, you have three recommendation letters from people who are professionals or academics in the field of professional costuming. If you do not but you still feel that you are ready for graduate school and determined to apply, consider carefully who to ask. Is there someone who can speak to your work in a related area from a professional standpoint, say perhaps a supervisor at a bridal alterations shop you worked at who can talk about your sewing skills, fine fabrics knowledge, and responsibility as an employee? How about a director with whom you worked as a stage manager, who can speak to your organizational skills, devotion to the creative process, and excellent time management abilities?

If you choose to ask someone outside the field, make certain they are willing and able to write the type of letter you need--several paragraphs with specific examples, not just the one-paragraph form-letter references that people request in the corporate workplace. Those form letters don't hurt you ("Ms. Smith is punctual and reliable employee of 2 years at our company. She has never been late to work."), but they're a waste of an opportunity to communicate anything of depth about you as a candidate.

But the point of this post is not really about choosing WHO to ask; it's about the etiquette of asking. I will assume that you can look at your academic and professional history and choose three people who'd be glad to recommend you for your diligence, dedication, maturity, intelligence, creativity, skill, and so forth, and none of whom would describe your performance as "adequate" or "sufficient" (red-flags for a "recommendation" that someone has written for an applicant they find unremarkable or don't remember well enough to speak about). Once you know who to ask though, how do you go about it?

If they are someone you currently work with or take a course with, ask in person. Stop by their office during open office hours or make an actual appointment. Sit down and ask them face to face rather than shooting an email. When you do so, explain in serious, professional terms why you are making your application, how the grad program or scholarship or fellowship will further your career goals, and ask whether they feel willing and able to write you a recommendation. Provided they agree, give them a copy of your personal statement, your resume or CV, and an info sheet with details from the application--when the recommendations are due, any guidelines they might have cited as to content, and anything they need to submit it with ease (if the program wants online recommendations, then the submission form URL or proper email address; if they want standard mail letters, then a SASE). 

If they are someone you cannot go visit in person to ask--a former supervisor who lives in a different state, for example--then a call or an email is acceptable. Clearly this is a generalization, but even if you have a fairly informal/casual rapport with the person, you should still word this particular email or phone call in a professional manner (i.e., no LOLs or nicknames or inside jokes, etc.), and no matter how well you know them you should still provide a copy of your resume/CV and your statement of purpose. 

Give them as much lead time as you possibly can. If you can ask a couple months in advance, do so. It takes time and effort to write a really good, effective recommendation letter, and you should be mindful of the fact that your former professors, current supervisors, and fellow colleagues have busy lives with many obligations, and that what you are asking them to do is a big favor. I probably spend at least 2-3 hours writing a really good recommendation letter, and those are typically hours i'm not getting paid; that's what you are essentially asking for--someone to give up some of their free time for no other reason than to help you out. Chances are, if you ask for a letter a couple weeks (or a couple days) before your deadline, you won't get as good of a letter as if you ask a month or more ahead of time. You may even have trouble finding someone able to write you one if the turnaround is too fast--a professor who would have written you a glowing letter a month ago might actually resent your presumption at asking with a super-fast turnaround time during midterms or their family vacation.

Do not expect to read these letters. Whether that is formalized is contingent on the expectations of the program--some have a form both you and the recommendation writer need to sign stating that you relinquished the right to read the letter, some ask that the letters be sent separately from your other materials and request disclosure as to whether you read them or not. Recommendations carry more weight if they are confidential; if you insist on reading them, the presumption is that the author may not have felt free to speak as openly as s/he might otherwise. Basically, if you have asked the right people, you ought not need to read them; you know they'll be great! 

Good recommendation letter-writers will notify you when they've sent the letter off, but even the best of us forget sometimes. If the deadline's approaching and you haven't heard back as to whether they sent it or not, it's okay to ask politely whether they've mailed it, with a gentle reminder of the cutoff date.

And, once the deadline has passed and you know the your letters have been received, send actual real thank-you cards to the people who wrote them. These folks have just done you a huge favor on their own time for which there can be no compensation whatsoever beyond the nebulous idea of good karma or paying-it-forward; you owe them a formal acknowledgment of that and expression of your gratitude.

There you have it, my recommendation recommendations. If you are applying for graduate admission or for a new job or fellowship in the coming year, the best of luck to you!

Unrelated image of a scissor-operated hat measure


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