Monday, 19 January 2015

How YOU Can Get An Excellent Reference Letter

I know you’ve only just gotten used to setting the alarm for your classes in the new term, but have you forgotten that JOB-HUNTING AND APPLICATION SEASON HAS LONG BEGUN? To those of you who’ve already begun the process, that’s great! And to those of you who haven’t –well, I can hear your exasperated sighs from here. But don’t shoot the messenger or anything, especially when that messenger has some great pointers you can use to help secure a job once you graduate (or that summer position you’ve been eyeing, if you’re in the middle of your undergrad). What makes me such an expert, you ask? Literally nothing. I’m in the same boat as you, so take my advice at your own risk! (Just kidding, I’ve spent hours reading articles and Ted Talks titled ‘How To Win In Life’ etc. so I’m pretty much qualified in this area…).

Editor's note: You might want to check out CAPS resources too... helping you get a job, etc. is what they after all what they do.

If you know anything about applying for jobs, graduate school and the like, you’ll know that there are many different topics to look at. For that reason, I’ve chosen to focus on one of the things that matters the most in the application process: reference and recommendation letters. Whether it’s for an entry-level position at a large company or a spot in a professional program, you’re not only guaranteed to be asked for a reference, but reference and recommendation letters are in large part considered the ‘make it or break it’ aspect of your application. A great reference letter can push you miles ahead and act as a means to distinguish you from the rest of your peers, while one that is mediocre may actually keep you from achieving what you’d like to (especially in cases when the sheer volume of applications makes standing out even more of a must). So, what should you consider? 

Choose your referee wisely. 

The majority of referees asked for (almost always two out of the three) are of the academic variety when applying to a professional program. In this case, your referees should consist of those who can comment on your academic ability, whether or not you can handle the workload of the program you’ve chosen to apply to, and they’ll need to vouch for your dedication and enthusiasm for the subject matter. So, getting an A in a fourth year class of 20 students may get you a reference letter, but it may not be a great one. This is simply because your academic referees should be those who know you well and whom you’ve had an opportunity to work with in some way beyond the classroom (to showcase your work ethic and critical thinking skills), and of course, whom you’ve had a positive impression on! The likelihood that you’ll receive a generic ‘Student X’ reference letter decreases significantly if your referee knows you well.

If you’re thinking, “Uh… well, I’m in my fourth year, and I’ve only just started thinking about grad school…” have no fear! There are a number of classes you can take at the fourth year level (in many programs, and even at the second year level) that will allow you to work in a lab with a supervisor, with whom you can build a relationship. These courses will also help to increase your personal and professional skills in the program(s) that interest you. This serves as the perfect opportunity for you to not only find a referee (as long as you make a good impression by being professional and taking initiative), but should also let you learn more about what careers are out there for your program (plus, you’re getting credit for it, so two birds with one stone, that kinda thing). Try to sign up for these classes in the semester before your application is due, so that you have your references in time for your application submission. Keep in mind that you can also volunteer to work with professors (usually in their labs and in their studies) and that it isn’t a must to take these classes (for those who learn about this opportunity past the Add/Drop deadline). 

Note: Please do not sign up for these classes just for an easy A or a reference letter. Often, these classes require a significant number of hours and dedication, and taking these classes without being interested can prove to be a long and gruelling semester. Also, professors generally aren’t required to write a reference letter for you – they do it out of their own will, so take that into consideration when signing up! 

Generally, a referee who knows you well (not only your character, but career aspirations too, and ideally, how your work with them has led you closer to your goals), and whom you’ve made a positive impression on (due to your professionalism, enthusiasm and initiative) will undoubtedly help you get an excellent reference letter! 

I’ve focused on academic references, but don’t forget that at least one of your referees can be non-academic. This gives you a lot more leeway in terms of who you can ask to be your reference (let’s keep your sweet old Grandma out of this one, okay?). Ideally, the referee you choose in this category should add to the picture you’ve painted for the admissions committee in terms of who you are as a person. Maybe you were involved in an interesting project that you’re passionate about that isn’t necessarily related to the position or program you’re applying to; asking a superior who took part in this project to be one of your referees would likely be a good idea, as it would show the admissions or hiring committee where your passions lie (outside of your career), giving you a more well-rounded (read: interesting and memorable) application. 

Plan ahead and ask early.

Give the referee ample time to write your letter. Not only does it look unprofessional to ask for a letter days (or even a week or two) before the deadline, but it is highly likely that your referee may not be able to write the letter in time due to prior commitments, leaving you scrambling at the last second (and worse case scenario, with an unfinished application). Furthermore, the more time a referee has to write your letter, the more thoughtful and indicative of your potential it will be. No one wants a generic reference letter; avoid unnecessary stress and ask at least a month or two in advance.

Also, it might be a good idea to follow-up with your referee. Check-in with them as the deadline draws near: a) to make sure that they haven’t forgotten (which is unlikely, but these things do happen) and b) to answer any questions they may have regarding your application. It may even be helpful to provide them with your resume/CV, as well as the copy of your application so that they understand what the recommendation letter is for (and their role in the process).

Make sure the rest of your application is up to par! 

An excellent reference letter is always great to have, but it can only do so much. It can help you distinguish yourself from your peers, but it likely will not wholly make up for the other parts of your application – meaning: make sure you put just as much work into the rest of your application as you did in your reference letters!

And there you have it folks… I bid you farewell in these scary, dark times known as the “I-have-a-bachelor’s-degree-but-I’m-tweeting-#OnMyGrind-whilst-clocking-in-at-McDonald’s” age. May the odds be ever in your favour!

Aala - YouAlberta Blogger

Aala is in her final year of the Neuroscience program [insert other random but completely boring things about her that make your eyes glaze over]. Now, onto the real important stuff: any doctors out there reading this? She's got a serious case of wanderlust-itis, and was wondering if there were any immediate cures? Because it’s got her on Pinterest, pinning images of places she’ll likely only visit in her dreams, when she should be paying close attention as her physiology professor goes over the role of CCK in the digestive system. FOR THE THIRD TIME. Sigh. At any point during the day, you can most definitely find her in the lineup for Tim Horton’s (ANY Tim Horton’s really, she's got quite a radar for it) getting her daily Iced Capp fix. 

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