By Keara Cormier-Hill
Even after thoughtfully submitting an unforgettable personal statement and the perfect resume, in most cases, to secure your dream fellowship, job or graduate school acceptance, you will need to ensure that you have referees that can speak highly of your character. As time and distance grows between you and former supervisors and professors, this can present a unique challenge. Those who know your qualifications best, and who you have the strongest relationship with, might also be people you have lost contact with because of distance and time.
Fortunately, there are many ways to maintain communication in preparation for the ask. Here, we share tips to keep your valuable professional relationships strong so when the time comes, you are certain you can expect a stellar recommendation.
#1 Think ahead
If you know you’ll be asking this person for a reference in the future, even if it may be several years from now, give them a heads up! Especially, at the conclusion of a job position or academic semester, many supervisors and professors will ask that you keep in touch and encourage you to reach out if they can ever help. This is a perfect opportunity to put them on reserve as a referee. Share your hopes to apply to graduate school or fellowship programs in the future, even if your plans are not set in stone so that, in the present moment, they can make their explicit commitment to support you in the future. Making your plans known early will also allow your contacts to mentally make a link between your future aspirations and their experiences with you while it is all still fresh in their mind. When they are eventually called to speak to why you are an ideal candidate, they will already have a few ideas to start with.
#2 Connect with them on LinkedIn
LinkedIn makes it easy to keep in contact with former supervisors, mentors, teachers, colleagues, conference presenters, and the list goes on. You can use the platform to maintain a digital record of your contacts, provide updates on your whereabouts, and be aware of others’ own professional updates. Additionally, if your contacts leave the organization you originally met them through, you still have a way to reach out without having to guess what their new email or contact information might be.
Finally, LinkedIn has a feature where users can provide recommendations for one another right on the platform. Why not ask your potential referees to recommend you? This way, you can get a preview of what they might say to a selection committee and, they can look back at this as a first draft for your letter of recommendation in the future.
If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, create one today – it’s free!
#3 Update them on major milestones
When you land a job, get a major promotion, publish a paper, even get married – check in with a personal note! Often people will send a group message about their updates, and this is fine for contacts who may not be referees. However, you will want to send important contacts a personal message. They will see that you have put thought and time into reaching out, and that you still value your relationship. And don’t keep the conversation one-sided! Be sure to express interest in their recent news as well. This way, it will be a welcome opportunity for them to return the sentiment when you need their help. This will also give them a chance to invite you in to learn about projects they are doing that might align with your career goals and interests.
If you feel you don’t have any major milestones to update them on, you can still reach out with a note thanking them for being part of your year or professional growth, and reflecting on how the knowledge you garnered with them still positively influences you today. These kind words will keep you and your current work on their mind in a flattering light.
#4 Ask for advice as you make key decisions
Another way to stay in touch is to ask for advice as you make major decisions. Whether you are deciding what graduate programs to apply to, how to negotiate your position and salary, insights on career paths, or other key questions, reaching out to your professional contacts will give you an opportunity to frame them as someone you see on your team of highly regarded consultants.
However, remember this is just a touchpoint, not a full consulting project. Be respectful of their time and keep your questions brief. If they are available and interested in a longer conversation, let them make the offer to you. Don’t forget to follow up after the conversation with what you decide!
#5 Make your recommendation ask respectfully
Now that you’ve maintained contact, they will be well aware of your current position and primed to speak highly of your accomplishments when you make your ask. Even so, never assume someone will definitely give you a recommendation. Good recommendations take thoughtfulness and attention to detail and you’ll want to ensure that your recommenders have the time and disposition to provide that. Phrase your ask in a way that shows deep appreciation and respect for the time they will potentially dedicate, but also gives an out if they are not currently able to help. For example, “I would be honored if..” and “I am writing to inquire if you would be willing…” are excellent ways to begin your ask.
As it is with any relationship, personal or professional, communication is the key. If you stay in touch with the people who support your professional growth, launching forward to the next stage in your career trajectory will be a much more straightforward arc.
Keara Cormier-Hill is an alumna of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education (HGSE), there having completed her Master’s of Education and Certificate of Advanced Studies, along with the Child Protection Certificate from the Harvard François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights. Prior to HGSE, Keara collaborated with youth-centered international organizations in the Dominican Republic for two years as a Princeton in Latin America Fellow.
© Victoria Johnson 2019, all rights reserved.