Resume Help/References


Hi Dr Converse,

I will be graduating this fall and have started to get my references together.  My question has to do with the fact that, at my school, all reference letters go into my university placement file.  All the professors do it this way and I haven't found any who will just give me the letters.  Is this the usual way of doing things?  How do I know the letters don't contain any negative information?  How should I get around this restriction?  Thanks for your help.

Hi Andy,

The answer to your first question is that some universities do reference letters this way and some don't.  Obviously, your school feels this is the best way of handling this.  I know it seems restrictive to you, but it is one way that the faculty are protected from zealous lobbying by students to give them letters full of praise and little else.  In other words, if a professor wants to write a truly objective and truthful letter, this will encourage him or her to do so if they know the letter will be confidential.  

So, how do you know what kind of letters to expect?  One way is to ask for them correctly.  Instead of doing what most students do (i.e. "Will you write me a letter of recommendation?"), ask a different way: "Would you have any difficulty writing me a strong letter of recommendation?"  I know these sound similar, but with the latter question you have made it clear what kind of a letter you expect if the individual agrees to write one.  The real key here is to watch the reaction of the person when you ask.  If they avoid eye contact, seem wishy-washy in their response, if they shift their feet or in any way give you negative body language, then you should move on.  When a person looks you in the eye, smiles, and provides an enthusiastic response to your inquiry, you have a much better chance of getting the letters that will be strongly in your favor as opposed to those that could sink your candidacy because they have neutral or negative information in them.

So, rather than focusing on "getting around the restriction," I suggest you choose the people you ask very carefully, ask them the right way, and then notice how their response is delivered.  This should go a long way toward helping you get the letters you want.

Hope this helps; I wish you the best!

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Ralph D. Converse, Ph.D.


I can answer questions about general job searches, resume construction, crafting an effective cover letter, and how to prepare for, and conduct, a winning interview. My speciality is the field of education, but I also have extensive background in business and administration. I know what works and what doesn't work and I can make your application package stand out from the rest ... because that is what you have to do.


I have interviewed for, and held, dozens of jobs in a career going back more than 42 years. I have taught at all educational levels including middle school, high school, community college, and university. In more than 42 years of experience on both sides of the job-search process, I have interviewed hundreds of applicants and have reviewed literally tens of thousands of job application packages. I am the author of 12 Mistakes That Got Your Job Application Rejected ... And How To Fix Them! I conduct workshops for job seekers in a variety of locations every year.

Music Educator's Journal, Teaching Music, Music and American Culture (forthcoming, 2013), Last Teacher Standing: The Job is Yours Now! and 12 Mistakes That Got Your Job Application Rejected ... And How To Fix Them!

B.A. New Mexico State University; M.Mus. Southern Illinois University; Ph.D. University of California and University of North Texas

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