The best coach I had for reference letters was P.K. Northcutt II, the head of IT at the University of Idaho College of Engineering. I asked P.K. for a reference letter once and almost had an early-life crisis (it was needed). P.K. is not a professor, engineer, or someone in any position of rank or power. Despite that he was able to write — while teaching me how to write — phenomenal reference letters. At the very least, reviewers had to be impressed by my awareness to select exceptionally good letter writers.

So you want me to write you a reference letter? Start here:

  1. I only write letters for people who have a specific and convincing reason for me to write one for them instead of someone else. It’s easy to spot a generic letter written by someone just going through the motions. Specific letters should always win versus generic. So if a generic letter is good enough to get you the job, you (and the company requesting it) didn’t need the letter at all.
  2. I only write letters for causes I believe are worth investing the time for. Sending me a convincing personal statement is a start. Often folks have a tough time getting past this phase. 80% of the time statements begin with, “I’ve always wanted to” or “My entire life has”. Anybody can say these things. Begin in an un-expected way that is relevant, original to you, and efficient. If you can convince me, we can likely convince an admissions person. Everybody wants a letter for Berkeley or MIT. When I ask why those schools, the answer is “because they’re the best”. The next question I ask is “Why?” We usually don’t get past the answer. Do your homework. Have a very good reason for why you need to be somewhere or funded by someone. If you can’t convince me, you probably won’t convince them.
  3. I recommend having 3 letters that cover very different areas of your personality, because they matter. Here’s a great start: a) ability to do original research, b) ability to teach and learn in the classroom, c) service/extracurricular activities (where P.K. fit into my letter packet). It’s no coincidence that these correspond to the Research, Teaching, and Service areas faculty are assessed in. Get THE BEST people that KNOW YOU in one of these areas and care enough to put the extra time into writing an exceptional letter for you. That matters much more than having a celebrity write you a half-assed letter.
  4. I need you to work with me to write the letter. 90% of the time students select the box “I wave my rights to review the contents of this letter” when applying. Or say, “I trust you to write a good letter.” I know it’s awkward telling your boss/advisor what to do when you’re a student. I need your help to insure accuracy and intent. We need to be on the same page. Besides, if you have a good reason for me to write you a letter, you have earned the right to know what I think of you and your work. It’s important for you to develop metacognition by visualizing yourself in the process of writing a letter for yourself. Metacognition builds empathy, and it will be important in understanding your new role. I know, this sounds lazy on my part and a cop out, but it’s better for you. I’ll likely attach a letter draft I wrote for one of my former students. Just so you can see an entire product. It contains the following paragraphs:
    1. a greeting to introduce myself to the receiver and establish a) relevance, and b) credibility to you, while doing it c) efficiently. Make minor changes to this (like your organizations name, etc.) and I’ll adapt it later.
    2. your origin/relevance story that builds up to this application within the context of me. How did you become connected with me and why is that significant/relevant/credible to this application (do not do it explicitly, but rather implicitly by describing things similar to what the job is looking for). I need you to draft this paragraph. I’ll revise later.
    3. your credibility statement of why you’re a good fit for this and how you will use this experience to further your ideals and those of the organization. Now explicitly connect to things they are looking for. Please draft this as you know more about the posting than I do. I’ll revise.
    4. A friendly and sincere closing with the obligatory “highly, strongly, highest” statements. I’ll add this. Once finished, send it to me and we’ll go to the next phase.
Please understand why I have this additional layer to the letter writing process that others do not. It works as both a filter and mentoring process. And remember, if I tell you no it’s not because I don’t like you or your work. It’s likely because I’m not a good fit and I think you can do better. Thanks P.K.!