One of my students inspired this post tonight, which is super, duper important. Especially this time of year, and particularly right now for pharmacy majors, as many of them are interviewing for residencies, fellowships and first gigs when they graduate this spring from pharmacy school.
What do they need (and what do YOU need) to get to the top of the stack as a candidate? Many things. Good grades help. A clean CV or resume helps. Interviewing skills are important. But one thing I can help my students with is–writing a great recommendation letter. GREAT letters of recommendation can’t help with the entire interviewing process, but they can certainly help one stand out for the crowd. A great letter of recommendation can literally knock a reviewer’s or hiring manager’s socks off!
I keep reading that 2015 will be the year where the employees are back in the driver’s seat when it comes to great jobs (unlike the last few years), so I really can’t think of a better time to write about how I work with my students to help them by crafting great recommendation letters for them. I want to share my process with you, which really can work for any type of reference and any type of employee–and can benefit both the candidate and the reference letter writer.
Ready? Here it is!
How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation
1. Make sure you ask for references that you know well – I’ll be honest. I have, on average, as a professor, about 120-140 students per class, times 6 years of college/our pharmacy program. On the low side, that’s 720 students to keep track of…and my tiny brain can’t hold all the names of all the students in each class, as much as I’d like to have that ability. Thankfully, we have a lot of opportunities where I teach (Butler University) to have smaller classes and one on one (1:1) or small teams of students working with professors on projects and in electives. The students that show up in my project, rotation and small team projects are the students I am most comfortable recommending, because I know them and their work.
So, if you’re on the asking side for letters, make sure you ask references who know your work well…not just had you in a class of 120 other students or who you randomly networked with 5 years ago. This is probably the most important step here – otherwise, you’ll get a generic, homogenous, wishy-washy letter of recommendation at best, which could be THE WORST when it comes to getting you at the top of the stack. If you’ve been asked to write a letter, how well do you know the person? If not well, don’t do it. Gracefully decline their kind offer. You’re killing your own precious time, and you won’t give them a good recommendation.
2. Give 3 strengths, and 3 stories to your reference for the letter – After you identify your references, you’ll want to arm them with at least 3 of your strengths, and 3 stories of how you put those strengths into action. For example, when students hit me up to write them a letter, if I know them (per step 1), I then ask them for their top 3 strengths, then one story for each strength of how they utilized them in situations where we interacted.
For example, let’s say hypothetically your top strength is futuristic, and you took my entrepreneurship class. EASY. You can then just share “futuristic” as a strength, then tell me about a time in class where you wrote a paper or worked on a project that was futuristic, and that you rocked or earned an A. Make sure, however, that your story involves your reference. Otherwise, it’s all hearsay – and a good letter of reference writer has first hand experience (and stories) that will support your strengths and your candidacy.
If you don’t know your strengths (Wha?!? Where have you been? Obviously not reading my blog)…get a copy of Strengthsfinder 2.0 or use the freebie assessment online to figure out what your top 3-5 strengths are – then think about times you actually used those strengths to achieve great outcomes! Which leads me to my next tip…
3. Use STAR format on those 3 stories – STAR is a format all the big employers use for interview questions, but this is a good format for sharing stories with your letter writing references too. S stands for situation – set up your story: what was the situation that caused it? Task is T: what task or steps did you take to achieve the….A for action in your story and what was the result (R) or outcome of that action? I’ll give you a real STAR example from my own checkered past – ready?
Strength: I’m futuristic.
STAR story with this strength: In 2008 when I was applying to law school, I was looking for a book on life science lawyers, or people who started in healthcare, but who also went to law school and became “hybrid” professionals in healthcare and law. I looked at Amazon, at the libraries, and couldn’t find any books on this type of professional, so I decided to write a book about this type of professional before I went to law school. I did online and offline research, found 30 professionals who had both types of degrees, and interviewed each of them to see what career paths they took. That book was published in 2009, and entitled The Life Science Lawyer. Because this book exists and is the first that I’m aware of for hybrid professionals, when I have students in pharmacy who are thinking about going to law school, I send them to our library to check out a a copy of this book.
See how easy that is?
4. Help with supplementing other relevant information that the reference can put in your letter – Facts can help. Facts that relate to a particular job can help too. Maybe you’re a member of an association that’s relevant to the job you’re asking a letter for – great! Tell the reference to consider adding it. Activities and volunteer hi-lights can help too. Pick and choose what you want hi-lighted from your CV and ask the reference to possibly add the facts too.
5. Give different stories to different references – Most jobs require at least 3 references. Some can ask for as many as 10! For the references you have, try to mix up the stories and even strengths and activities based upon your relationship with the reference. For example, I would ask my boss at work to discuss my strengths in teaching. I’m a better 1:1 teacher than 140:1…so I’d love it if she could talk about my ability to teach in smaller groups that we’ve co-piloted on in the past. I also volunteer and work on projects outside of my day job that employ my strengths, so perhaps I’d ask a friend who let me teach a writing workshop for her write a letter speaking to my ability to teach different curriculum. Just try and mix up the stories with your strengths and based upon your different relationships with references. That’s important. Variety of stories here shows a track record or ‘theme’ of your strengths…which is good.
6. Never, ever lie – As much as we all love a rich fairy tale, one place you don’t want any fiction is in your reference letters (or resume for that matter). Never lie. Never ask your references to lie, either. Not only is that not cool and totally unprofessional, but just like the very opposite of most fairy tales, you’ll eventually get caught and have a very UNhappy ending.
That’s it! If you really want some stellar letters that knock their socks off, this is the process you should consider taking. Make it EASY for the reference to give you a stellar reference in writing! By knowing the references well, knowing your strengths, and sharing stories of how you put those strengths into action for a positive outcome, you’re already on your way to the top of the stack…and possibly the job of your dreams!