Letters of Recommendation: Who I Asked and Why

By Veronica Pleasant, OUR Peer Research Ambassador

If you’re a senior, chances are you’re considering either graduate school or full time employment after graduation. If you chose the former, then you probably need a few letters of recommendation for your applications. Who do you ask? How do you form relationships with faculty who can write you letters of recommendation?

If you’re reading this and you’re a freshman, sophomore, or even a junior, keep the above questions in mind as you continue on.

As a recent applicant to veterinary school, as well as graduate school, I know asking for letters of recommendation can be terrifying. I felt totally underqualified and like a pest. However, I’ve spent the majority of my undergraduate career building relationships with mentors, and because of that I had plenty of people to turn to for recommendations. Here’s an overview of who I asked for recommendations and how I built those relationships.

Start with your research mentor

The beauty of building professional relationships with faculty members is that no two mentors are the same, as no two mentees are the same. In my experience, the best way to establish a good, working relationship with a faculty member, or multiple faculty members, is through undergraduate research. The faculty mentor is responsible for guiding the student through getting started, training, and developing their own thoughts and ideas throughout the research project process. Usually, faculty and students get to know each other pretty well!

Throughout the fall and spring semesters of my freshman year (2015-2016), I was in the WiMSE LLC FYE class with Dr. Kristen Govoni in the Department of Animal Science. I got to know her, and she got to know me through various activities during the FYE class. At the end of the year, I asked to join her laboratory, and she said yes! Since then, we have worked together on a variety of projects, posters, presentations and even her seminar class. As I established my research and professional capabilities, I established that I am a credible, hard working student. Dr. Govoni also established herself as a kind and understanding faculty mentor, and after working with her for now the fifth semester, I feel as though we know each other well. Because we had discussed my career goals at length, as well as my research goals, it seemed to be the next step to ask if she would write me a letter of recommendation (actually, two for different programs), and it worked out!

Consider connections forged through projects and collaborations

While working in the lab, I got to know postdoctoral fellow Dr. Maria Hoffman (URI) very well. She is now a professor at the University of Rhode Island, and because she can speak to the content of my character, I felt comfortable in asking her for letters of recommendation. This is also the case with Dr. Sarah Reed in the Department of Animal Science, as she and Dr. Govoni frequently collaborate on growth physiology studies. I felt comfortable asking Dr. Reed because we had travelled and worked together on several projects, and even participated in a journal club together. Through research, I gained valuable connections, advice, research philosophies, and so much more. These kinds of experiences are multifaceted, and can truly serve to alter the course of your career trajectory, and enrich your undergraduate experience.

Think about your favorite courses

If you’re stuck, look no further than the front of your favorite class. Remember, the people that teach your classes are usually faculty, too! Last spring, I took a course called Emerging Infectious Diseases (PVS 3700), and it was one of my favorite courses ever! Because I enjoyed the class so much, I spent time speaking to the professor, Dr. Steven Szczepanek. As I am interested in pursuing infectious disease research in graduate school, it seemed appropriate to ask him for a letter of recommendation to include in my applications. While Dr. Szczepanek and I did not know each other very well for a long period of time, he could still speak to the quality of my performance in his class, and the importance of this career field.

This kind of recommender is critical, and often overlooked. Dr. Szczepanek is a valuable resource on campus, as are the wonderful faculty, staff and employees of the university. It is also important to remember that letters of recommendation can come from many places: employers, staff, lecturers, etc., but they need to be able to write to the quality of your performance in the applicable setting, and the content of your character.

Don’t forget about your advisors

The last type of recommender I want to touch upon is an advisor. Advisors are critical- they help us pick our classes to align with our career and educational goals, they help guide us into the correct major for those goals, and they are there for every educational obstacle in between. Dr. Steven Zinn, the Department Head of the Department of Animal Science, is my advisor for the Animal Science major, and I asked him for a letter of recommendation based on his knowledge of my academic performance, my content of character, my research capabilities, and overall, because we have known each other since I first came to UConn. An advisor, especially one that has been the same over the course of an undergraduate career, is the perfect person to attest to your growth and development as a student and a professional.

The common theme across different types of recommenders is that you have to get to know them as human beings! Faculty are incredible resources to students across campus. Spend time getting to know the faculty in your life- they are people too!

Veronica is a senior double majoring in Animal Science and Pathobiology. Click here to learn more about Veronica.