In the 2009 film "Up in the Air," Natalie Keener decides she can no longer stomach being part of a corporate firing squad and quits her firm. Her mentor, played by George Clooney, behaves as the magnanimous gent we all know him to be: he writes a glowing reference letter on her behalf, addressed simply "to whom it may concern."
In the real world, getting a reference letter is far more difficult and often a source of much anxiety. Whom to ask, how to ask, what to say?
But getting an outstanding reference letter is entirely within your control and easier than you think, even if you don't have a benevolent benefactor at your back.
Here are three tips to ensure your mentor, former boss, or academic counselor writes you a rave review:
Highlight their qualifications
Provide a template
Offer a "no questions asked" policy
Let's look at each of these individually:
Highlight their Qualifications
When reaching out to ask for a letter of reference, explain up front and center why it is that you value that person's opinion and respect their professional expertise enough so that you chose them (of all people) to vouch for you in your next professional endeavor.
Beyond mere flattery, show why you think that person is uniquely qualified to accurately assess and communicate your personal contribution to your future organization. Why did you enjoy working for them, and why do you value their opinion? Why do you look up to them? How do the qualities match your own, or speak to the authority you want your recommendation to convey?
Provide a Template
It's almost impossible to get a good reference letter from someone if you don't provide the tools necessary for them to actually write a good letter. It's also terribly inconsiderate not to give ample guidance. The last thing anyone wants to do is spend hours or days thinking about and drafting a letter which you yourself could have composed far better and more readily in about half the time.
Providing a template, therefore — an outline, bullet points, or even a fully-baked draft — of what you'd like the reference letter to say is the most effective (not to mention generous and thoughtful) approach to asking for a letter of reference. The goal isn't to put words into your former colleague's mouth or to co-opt her into vouching for you in an untrue or disingenuous manner; it's simply to do some of the work for her and provide all of the pertinent data points that you'd like included in the letter. Moreover, as boastful, bragging or full of yourself you may feel writing your own referral, often people will be even more generous than you will when talking about your skills and contribution to an organization. So go ahead and toot your own horn.
"No Questions Asked"
Finally, once you provide your reviewer with a useful template and make it clear that your intention is to make this process as painless as possible for her, then it's time to hand over the reins and offer a "no questions asked" policy. First, give your colleague an easy "out" to decline your request for any or no reason. Then, assuming she agrees, give her ample leeway to change, modify or edit your letter as she sees fit. You want to convey a sense of trust in her and give her an opportunity to write a letter she is entirely comfortable with.
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