Application tip: the brag sheet

A friend recently expressed anxiety over asking for a letter of reference. It can be nerve-racking to ask an authority figure to vouch for you! The first step, of course, is to identify who you can ask. Some considerations:

Who knows you well enough to talk about your knowledge, skills and attitudes? Also consider the “big picture” that your recommendation letters will collectively create. One letter may touch on Important Fact A — does another speak to Important Fact B? Ideally, the letters come together to draw a comprehensive portrait (or, at least, they touch on the most important aspects of your qualifications)!

How will they write the letter of recommendation? Do your recommenders prefer to write completely independently, or will they require input or information from you? I had a few reference-writers who reviewed their letters with me to ensure they hadn’t missed any key pieces. This was, of course, specific to our close professional relationship, our shared level of trust, and the fact that they weren’t familiar with the field I was entering. On the other hand, I know some faculty who want students to draft the entire letter for them, which has both its pros and cons.

In any case, it is always helpful to give your letter-writer as much information as possible. To this end, I created a “brag sheet” (both for my graduate school and NSF grant applications). On it, I listed the “highlights” that should be emphasized in a letter of recommendation. This included sections such as:

  • What are my goals?: Pretty straightforward — but don’t forget to include specifics, like your endgame (e.g., a terminal degree) and research interests.
  • What are [schools, programs, funding agencies] looking for?: That is, what qualities does the ideal candidate possess? This helps the letter-writer understand how to frame the letter.
  • What did we work on together?: Always important to recommend the things you did with your letter-writer! Be sure to mention any obstacles you overcame and goals you met.
  • What are my academic qualifications?: Again, pretty easy – -numbers, facts, and figures about performance (GPA, years serving in research, roles and responsibilities).
  • What else sets me apart?: This should catch all important and relevant things not mentioned above — extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and personal background (e.g., challenges or personal adversity)

By creating (essentially) a “cover letter” for your reference-writer, you do a few things. If you create this before asking them if they’ll write you a letter, you increase the chances that they’ll accept — after all, you’re handing them a “cheat sheet.” Keep in mind that reference-writing can be quite time-consuming, so you’re effectively decreasing the burden on your letter-writers by doing the detective-work beforehand. By providing important information, both about yourself and the organization, you’re also helping hone the letter so that it reflects you more comprehensively and speaks strongly to the goal. Finally, this is a useful exercise, since it forces you to sit down and recount all the great work you’ve done with your letter-writer! You’re making both your lives easier; it’s a win-win.

Productivity tools

[Photo: Inter-American Teacher Education Network]
“Productivity tools” are more than just buzzwords — they’re actually incredibly useful (and, at times, irreplaceable). Here are some that I find invaluable!

Google Calendar. I would be utterly lost without my calendars. I have over 10 sub-calendars, categorized by theme: School, Work, Health… I even have one for the time that I have to spend in transit. This is what works for my neurotic self, but I know others who live and die by Microsoft Outlook or their pen-and-paper planners (the DayDesigner is particularly intriguing).

Boomerang for Gmail (email scheduler). You might not think scheduling your emails is necessary, but I’ve found it very useful in two specific circumstances. (A) I’m up late at night and want to send an email. Rather than messaging someone at 2am, I can have Boomerang schedule the email to be sent at a humane time of day. (B) I receive an email and want to respond to it later. Boomerang can “ping” me by re-sending the email later, so that it appears in my inbox at a more convenient time.

Dropbox (cloud file storage). Dropbox enables me to easily save, back-up, share and remotely access my documents through the power of the world wide web. You can use it through many means: browser plug-in, desktop standalone, mobile app. Please note that Google Drive also does a great job of cloud storage, although it has the advantage (or disadvantage, depending) of allowing direct online editing of files.

XMarks (bookmark synchronization). XMarks is a plug-in that helps me sync my vast collection of Internet bookmarks. I always have my favorite websites at my fingertips, no matter what browser or computer I’m using. This was indispensable when I was working on grad school and grant applications, as I had to constantly consult and edit different webpages.

LastPass (passwords storage). LastPass, through very secure technology that I don’t quite understand, allows you to save and input your passwords. If you’re a Mac user, the iCloud keychain does the same thing. In any case, it is so liberating, freeing up all that mental space previously used to memorize passwords.

Zotero (references catalog). I have no idea how anyone made it through graduate school without bibliographic software. Many academics pay for the old standby, EndNote, to organize and edit their citations. Personally, I’m a huge advocate for a free, open-source version, which I’ve been using since my undergrad honors thesis days. Zotero plugs into your Internet browser and word editing software, enabling you to easily create and update your references. For example: it takes less than a minute to “download” a PubMed page into Zotero and insert the formatted citation and bibliography into my grant on Microsoft Word.

Evernote (note-taking application). Evernote sounds like a simple app — just a way to jot down notes — but its real strength is that it is cloud-based, highly organizable, and editable. I use it as a net to catch all the thoughts that I want to file away for a later time.

Today’s technology is continually innovating, so I’ll explore and report back when I can! Last updated: August 5, 2015