I am currently in the process of applying to different veterinary and graduate schools. The one thing that I need for all of these applications? Reference letters. Chances are, you’ll need reference letters at some point in your life. But how do you get someone to write a good letter for you? That’s a good question, and I’ll share my tips with you after I present two different scenarios.
Scenario #1: Bob
Bob wants to work in chemical engineering after he graduates with his bachelor’s. He always gets high B’s and A’s, but he rarely shows up to class (no matter the subject). He’s naturally good at every subject he encounters, so he doesn’t put in any effort. He’s just beginning his senior year and he needs references. He shoots off a super professional email to his chemical engineering professor and he gets a response. A flat out “no”. Bob is shocked. How could the professor say no? He graduated the class with a 96%. Slightly discouraged, Bob asks his nanochemical professor in the same manner…and gets the same answer. After asking all of the professors he’s ever had (including that one painting class he had to take to complete his liberal arts requirement) they all tell him that they won’t be a reference for him. Poor Bob can’t understand why no one will be a reference for him.
Scenario #2: Jake
Jake struggles in nearly every science lecture class. He excels in his labs though, encouraging him onto his dream career of being a biomedical engineer. The end of his junior year, he began investigating companies he believed he would be a good fit for. Nearly every one of his professors knew who he was when they would happen to pass each other in the hallway (and they should, given the amount of times he’d visited them during office hours asking for help understanding the material). As he was investigating possible companies, he went to his biochemistry and biomedical engineering professors, asking for their take on the companies. During the following summer, he began gathering application materials. He asked several of his professors if they would be willing to be a reference, and every single one of them responded with a yes. Jake was thrilled, and kept them all in the loop as he was applying, asking questions along the way.
Can you see the difference between poor Bob and Jake? Bob was certainly the better scholar, but Jake was more involved. He showed his professors that he existed and that he was willing to conquer any hard topic that they came across when he kept visiting them during office hours. In essence, you want to be like Jake. Here are my tips for getting a reference letter from someone.
- Be active
Alright, I don’t mean that you need to be able to run 5 miles. But you do need to actively participate in whatever field that your possible reference is in. For example, if you’re at school, ask questions and visit them during office hours frequently. If you’re shadowing at a veterinary clinic, be willing to learn and help in any capacity.
My main point is that your reference can’t write you a good reference letter if they don’t even know you exist (yes, they see your name on their roster…but they couldn’t point you out in a line-up).
- Stand out
Okay, they know you exist. But they also know that the other kids who see them in office hours exist too. Now you need to make sure that they won’t forget you…and that means standing out (but in a good way!). Be the one to get into conversations with them about their research or what they did in grad school. I went into my biochemistry professor’s office hour to get help on glycolysis, and we ended up talking about how Type 1 Diabetes affects your metabolism (the most fascinating conversation I’ve ever had during office hours). This topic was something that interested us both, and something that I don’t think either one of us will forget.
- Be polite
This seems to be uncommon these days, but so many of my professors have complimented me on it. Always add “Yes sir/ma’am” and “thank you” and “please” to your conversation. Don’t just answer with a “yup”. That’s not professional, and while a lot of others may do it, I’ve noticed that people older than us really appreciate it when you call them sir/ma’am…because it shows respect. This may be old-fashioned, but it works.
- Pick someone who’s going to write you a good letter
This may go without saying, but you need to pick someone who will write you a good reference letter. If you left off on bad terms with your last employer (although you did really great work and got all the experience needed for your job), it’s probably not in your best interest to ask them for a letter.
- How to ask for a letter
If you read my post on “6 Steps To Writing An Email That Your Professor Will Actually Read And Respond To”, the tips outlined there can be utilized here as well. Mention that you are applying to grad school/job and that you are wondering if they knew you well enough to be a reference. As always, acknowledge that you know they are busy and that you completely understand if they are unable to help.
- Give them plenty of notice
If your application is due in September, don’t wait until August 31st to ask for a reference letter. If you do, you are showing the person that you asked that you don’t think very highly of their time. If they write a letter for you, it most likely won’t be a good one. Always try to ask them months in advance. Respect their time. Your references have a lot going on.
Since you know the best ways to get good references, now is the time to start putting these into practice. Don’t wait until the last minute. Start cultivating these relationships with possible references now. You can do this! Good luck on your applications!
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