"Will you be my reference for this job/internship?"
As a professor, faculty advisor, and volunteer, I get asked this a lot. Sometimes, students who ask me for a reference are those students I've known for several years, both in and out of the classroom, and I know enough about their career aspirations that I can easily and comfortably give them a solid, positive recommendation.
Many times, however, a student will approach me for a recommendation when they have been one of 250 students in my class, sitting somewhere near the back of the lecture hall and rarely talking. In those cases, the only thing I can say about them is "They are a solid B student."
That's hardly the recommendation they’re looking for, and it always creates the difficult position of having to say, "I'm sorry, but I'm not the best person to recommend you."
We all need references and recommendations. Strong, positive endorsements help us promote our personal brand and provide us with the professional support we need to succeed in reaching our goals.
But we can't presume we can merely ask for a recommendation and expect to get a great one. Recommendations are earned through hard work, continuous achievement, and respect. And it's an ongoing process—the recommendation you'll want three years from now should be considered today so you can begin earning that recommendation.
It sounds like a daunting task, doesn't it? Don’t worry. Recommendations can easily be earned through three simple but continuous steps:
Make a List
Start building your list of potential references today for the recommendations you might need in three to five years. Include people you're currently working with or have worked within the recent past. This list can include your current supervisor, co-workers, a member of your church or volunteer organization, or one of your professors. These are the people who have seen your work ethic and can talk about your dedication, hard work, and results.
Be realistic. Choose individuals who have seen you in action or can write honestly about your efforts. If you’re one student amongst 250 in a class, then make sure to introduce yourself. Go to your instructor’s office hours and discuss the class material. If you’re looking for a professional recommendation think about colleagues or supervisors who work with you consistently.
If your list seems pretty short (or non-existent), make a dream list of those people you admire—people who have been successful and are role-models for your goals and aspirations. Use your social networks to get connected. Once you start building these connections, talk to them about their career and start building a relationship with them so they learn more about you, your goals, and your achievements.
Remember building your list doesn't automatically guarantee a positive, glowing reference. But by creating a list today, you can begin performing to high standards and earn the respect and, hopefully, positive recommendation of the individual on your list.
You earn your recommendations and endorsements every single day. Your hard work helps you achieve your goals, and when you perform to your highest standards, your potential recommender can see how your diligence earns you their reference. Work hard. Get noticed for having a dedicated, passionate approach to maintaining the highest of standards. Lead teams or group projects. Get involved on committees. Participate in class. Volunteer. And, yes, promote yourself and your achievements.
Know How to Ask
When it finally comes time to ask for that well-earned reference letter, make sure you do it right. Ask politely, and provide details related to the nature of the recommendation. Is it for a job, a promotion, graduate school acceptance, a volunteer position, or something else? Provide a copy of your most recent resume and highlight some of the key attributes and reference points you'd like to have emphasized.
When you make the ask, don’t assume that they’ll necessarily say yes. If you are asking someone you respect for a reference, chances are some of your friends and colleagues are as well. You may have to go with your second or third choice for a reference if your first choice has already been taken. That’s why when you make the ask, you should give your reference plenty of lead-time. Reference letters take time to write, so provide as much advance notice as possible.
If you follow these three principles, you’ll be on the right track to earning that well-deserved recommendation!