Hi Dr Converse,
I am going to start getting my letters of recommendation together this fall semester. Can you give me some pointers on how I should go about this and how to handle the whole process? Thanks.
The first thing you should do is consider carefully the people you want to ask. You have probably had good interaction with several faculty members over the years that you have been in school who could write you a letter. Go through that list in your mind and write down the very best candidates who you believe would write you a strong letter. Then approach the top five on your list.
The way you need to go about this is by asking the question "Would you have any problem writing me a strong letter of recommendation?" You are wanting that person to look you in the eyes, smile, and tell you that they would be very happy to write you a letter. If you sense that the person is uncomfortable with the request (their eyes shift, they don't smile, they are vague in their response), then move on. Don't use any letter you get from a person who you feel is not 100% ready to give you their best recommendation. If you simply ask (as most people do) "Would you write me a letter of recommendation?" then you will have to take whatever you get and if it isn't a great letter it can do irreparable damage to your job prospects. Nobody wants to say "no" to a simple request like that. But if you phrase the question in the way I suggested at the beginning of this paragraph, you will be telling the writer what kind of a letter you expect if they agree to write one. If you simply ask for a letter, you are going to get a lot of "yes" but you also have no way to know how good that letter will be. Ask the right question and you'll get the right letter.
You should ask that the letter be on letterhead stationery and, if possible, undated. You will want to make PDFs of your letters so you can use them for electronic submission if needed. Try to avoid an email reference since these can be viewed as unverifiable and weak. Anybody can write an email saying how wonderful you are, but since it won't be signed and could literally come from anyone, it tends to be fairly useless. The reason you want them undated is so you can use them into the future if your first job search is unsuccessful. Obviously, you want to notify each of your references each time you apply for a job so they will be alerted to the fact they may get a phone call.
If your school has a career center or placement bureau, you may never get to see your letters so the advice I have given you above is even more important. If you do not have access to your letters (as would be the case with most placement centers) you will have no idea what is actually in them. Knowing your references is paramount in this case. If you watch their reaction when you ask for the letter, you will have a good idea who will write you a strong letter and who may not. One poor letter in your file can sink your job prospects for years to come, so this process is very important. If your references agree to write you a letter that will go directly into your placement file, you better be VERY certain that it is the kind of letter you want there. If, for any reason, you have doubts about a person's willingness to give you a great recommendation, do not ask them to submit a letter to placement. If, on the other hand, you are given the letters personally, you can choose which ones to use. Knowing how this is handled at your school is key to assembling a quality portfolio.
I hope this helps; if you have questions you can write me a follow-up here or send me a note to the email address below. Good luck!