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April 3, 2007 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Who should write my letters of reference two years out of university?

I am applying for an internship in a field related to my university studies. The catch is that I finished my studies two years ago, I've since moved, and I've lost contact with the professors I worked closely with while in school.

The application requires two letters of reference. I haven't worked any job even remotely related to the internship or my studies since then. I have no idea who I should approach to write these letters of reference, or whether these letters should come from people who know academically, professionally, or personally.

I can't approach my employers as references as doing so would place my employment in jeopardy (they wouldn't look kindly on my seeking another position, even if it would be the best thing for me). My last contact with the head of my (small) program was leaving an email unanswered when she asked why I hadn't pursued graduate work as I'd formerly planned (I was too embarassed to get into my lame, lame reasons).

I am working with a few friends/acquaintances on a project related to the internship I'm interested in, but I don't know if having one of them write a letter would be acceptable or somehow going against the rules.

So what do I do? Can I apply for an internship with personal references rather than academic and professional references? Do I cross my fingers, contact former profs and hope they don't think I'm too much of a fuck-up or gadabout to write a good reference for? I don't even feel like I have people in my life who know me well-enough to write a personal reference letter for me!

So what do I do? Who do I approach and who will I be expected to approach? I really want and need an internship -- if not this one, then another -- and I don't want my lack of people who will vouch for me to ruin my chances.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'd contact your former professors. You haven't got much to lose by trying that. You can always gauge their response and then decide whether or not to use them as referees.
posted by robcorr at 10:21 PM on April 3, 2007

Two years is not that long. Your professors will still remember you. Your story is common and will probably be well received and understood. Professors understand these things happen and that recommendations are for helping students move on in life. In a recommendation, you state the positive only.

On rereading your question, it seems to me like having your friend or acquaintance write your recommendation AS A COLLEAGUE would be perfectly acceptable, since you are working on a related project. This is perfectly legitimate. When I am looking for someone to give me a job recommendation, you bet I go to the people I was personally friendly with, some of whom were past managers.
posted by xammerboy at 11:12 PM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Letter 1: Write back to that two year old email, apologize for not responding sooner, thank her for her encouragement, and say that you are finally ready to consider furthering your education. Ask her if she would feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation.

Letter 2: Ask a friend who is working on the project with you to write a letter of recommendation. Tell him or her that your friendship shouldn't come into it and that the letter should be strictly professional.

I just got accepted to grad school with two employer reference letters from unrelated fields, but I had been out of school for 8 years.
posted by hazyjane at 11:21 PM on April 3, 2007

I was in a very similar situation -- almost two years out of school, a lack of contact with my professors, and failure to follow through on work I had left unfinished. I contacted a few, and they were happy to write me reference letters. Unless you really burned your bridges, you should be fine. Chances are they are pretty busy, so they'll remember working with you but not minor friction that occurred years ago.
posted by Krrrlson at 12:42 AM on April 4, 2007

Contacting your professors is totally appropriate and normal. People do this after a lot more than two years. (Whether it is best to use professors, or current colleagues, or someone else, will depend on what kind of program you are applying into.) If you do contact your professors, though, do two things that many students fail to do:

First, don't ask "Will you write me a reference letter?" Ask something like, "Would you be comfortable writing me a strong reference letter?" Give them an out if they don't feel that they can write something supportive -- a tepid letter is really deadly.

Second, give them enough information to a) remember you and b) write a good letter. In your email, have a paragraph where you say, "I was in your classes A, B, and C in years X, Y, and Z. I worked with you on that summer project on such and such. I am applying to the such and such program, with a long-term goal of such and such. Attached are my CV, my application letter, and the form that you need to fill out." It's even better if you can provide some more details, like "I wrote papers for you on P, Q, and R," but you may not remember any more than they do.

Finally, it's not unheard of for a professor to say, "you write the letter and send it to me," so be ready if this happens. (It is a lot harder to write a letter for yourself than it would seem.)
posted by Forktine at 3:55 AM on April 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

I faced a similar issue when I applied to grad school last year. I had no problem getting recommendations from former professors. Just do what Forktine says. Professors get many requests like this and are usually happy to help, provided you didn't totally bomb their courses.

Just give them plenty of notice or let them know about any deadlines - one of my professors took about 4 months to get the letter to me. You also may want to let them know of any specific qualities you'd like them to stress in their letters. For example, I told one professor that I was really proud of my writing in his class, and I was hoping he could talk about that in his letter.

I also agree that having your friend/colleague write a letter is totally appropriate. Good Luck!
posted by kjars at 6:03 AM on April 4, 2007

Same issue here applying to law school four years after the fact. I still had a copy of my term paper, so I sent this to the prof.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:55 AM on April 4, 2007

I agree with Forktine. You can always put in at the end, "if you don't feel comfortable writing a reference letter for me, I understand", to ensure that if they're going to write you one it will be at least decent.

The hardest part of reference letters for academic programmes is getting the professor's to be effusive about you -- in my experience, and this is common sense, professors who i have a close relationship with are far more likely to go on about how "great" my academic record is than someone I don't personally know. I think your biggest problem will be getting a reference letter that says something more than "anon was in my class, they performed well" etc. That's a boilerplate reference letter. What admissions boards etc look for in reference letters is something beyond that...

It may be worth sending in two letters, one from an old prof and one more current, just to try and ensure you get a balance.
posted by modernnomad at 8:29 AM on April 4, 2007

I just (successfully) applied to law school after two years out working. I contacted an old prof and attached the large paper he had helped me write to jog his memory. He was happy to help. I also got a letter from a supervisor in my current job. In short: I don't anticipate it being difficult for you to get an old prof to write you a letter and, as stated above, a recommendation from a more current source would probably serve you well too.
posted by PhatLobley at 9:00 AM on April 4, 2007

Nthing contacting old professors. I've even had profs who tell me, "Don't you ever be afraid to get in touch with me down the road for reference purposes."
posted by sian at 10:41 AM on April 4, 2007

I agree with Forktine. You can always put in at the end, "if you don't feel comfortable writing a reference letter for me, I understand", to ensure that if they're going to write you one it will be at least decent.

No! You want to be direct enough to put a word like "strong," or "positive," or "supportive" in front of the word "letter" in that sentence. Otherwise, you are just asking for a letter, period, and it is up to them whether or not it is positive. If they are nice, they will say, "oh, maybe I'm not the best person to do this," but you don't want to count on them volunteering that information. You seem to be assuming that "write me a letter?" is the same as "write me a strong letter?", and sadly that's just not the case.
posted by Forktine at 1:09 PM on April 4, 2007

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