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The Do’s and Don’ts of Asking for Recommendations

Disclaimer: All of the events described here are real. The names and details have been changed to protect the innocent (and the not-so-innocent).

DON’T Assume – Even if you are 99.9% positive that a teacher will give you a glowing recommendation, you should never give out references and contact information without asking the teacher first. Besides being common courtesy, this notification allows your teachers to have time to think of specifics that they might want to include in the recommendation or to raise any concerns they have about being your recommender (more on this in a minute).

This seems like common sense, but I’ve had several instances where I’ve gotten a surprise email or phone call asking for a recommendation. Laurel, a former student, gave my cell phone number to a prospective employer. When this employer called and asked to chat with me for a few minutes, I answered her questions as honestly as I could, but I also let her know that I had some reservations about this student’s sense of responsibility and maturity. Laurel ended up not getting the job. If Laurel had asked me beforehand, I would have had the chance to bring up my concerns about her performance and tactfully led her to the conclusion that another teacher might be able to give her a better reference than I could.

DO Allow Your Teacher to Gracefully Decline Writing Your Recommendation – Most teachers really want to do what is best for their students. This includes gently informing the student that perhaps he or she should look elsewhere when seeking a recommendation. A teacher might decline the request for a number of reasons, such as a lack of time or feeling that she doesn’t know the student well enough to write a strong reference. While turning down this request can be an awkward conversation for any teacher to have with a student, it is motivated with the student’s best interest at heart. This leads us to…

DON’T Try to Coerce/Guilt/Flatter a Teacher into Writing a Recommendation – Telling a student, “I’m not the best person to write a recommendation for you” is uncomfortable for the teacher and can be difficult for the student to hear. However, prolonging the moment by trying to change the teacher’s mind only makes the situation worse.

When I first started teaching, a student told me I was literally the only teacher he could think of to write a recommendation for him. Mark had asked other teachers only to have them tell him “No,” and he had run out of people to ask. I felt bad for the student so I relented, but I didn’t know Mark that well beyond the fact that he had gotten a solid C in my class. The resulting recommendation, filled with vague platitudes and suspiciously lacking any specific details, probably raised a lot of red flags at the schools where he applied.

The moral of this story is, in the event that a teacher tells you that he or she isn’t the best person to write your recommendation, thank the teacher and leave it at that.

DO Remember that Teachers Take Your Recommendations Seriously – Eric, a former teaching colleague, once told me that he views writing letters of recommendation as an act of kindness rather than as part of his job. While I was initially surprised by this description, I’ve started seeing the truth in it. Recommendations are one of many unofficial duties teachers have, but they are also a gesture of caring and goodwill that we extend to students. We spend a lot of time writing, rewriting, and proofing these letters. We know that they are important to you, and we make them important to us as well.

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