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.