Why Are You Afraid to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation or Help?

A theme we have encountered before is individuals unable or unwilling to ask mentors for letters of recommendation or for help with their professional progression.  This is evidently true for so many applicants because I STILL get applications that are just Not Good. The applications clearly haven’t been vetted by a mentor. Why in the world not?  I don’t know exactly, but I have some theories.

  1. You don’t believe you need help.  You are wrong. This is the illusion of confidence- you are not good at evaluating your competence until you become an expert (AKA Dunning-Kruger Effect).  You need help, please seek it.
  2. You think the mentor will judge you.  You are afraid that the way you ask may make the mentor think less of you.  Or you believe asking for help indicates you are less competent, so they will think you are less competent.  I won’t say this never happens. But the mentors who do this are not RFHBs. Any mentor worth the title WANTS to help their mentees.  Sure, if you ask them on the eve of a due date instead of two months before the due date, they may be irritated and more likely to judge you.  So… don’t do that. Give them plenty of time, give them all the information, ask humbly and respectfully, and you should get a positive response.  If you get a negative response given all of these conditions, the problem is with THEM. Be grateful you figured out this mentor was not an RFHB and drop them like a hot potato.
  3. You have social anxiety.  I get it, talking to people is hard.  Fortunately, we have this amazing invention called The Internet!  No longer do you have to crash a professor’s office or even call them.  In fact, for a significant majority, email is by far the preferred means of communication.  So just reach out by email
  4. You’re afraid of what they will say.  You are worried that you will not get a good letter of recommendation, or they will be critical in their feedback when you ask for help.  That is a fair concern. Unfortunately, in this world, you get what you ask for. If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it. You can work as hard as you can and be a great person, but you may still get unconstructive criticism.  This is a risk inherent in life. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.” If this dramatically limits your life success, you probably should seek out professional mental health assistance. Taking feedback effectively is an extremely valuable life skill.
  5. You feel like a burden or that you are undeserving of a letter or help.  I understand some faculty and mentors can give you the impression that they don’t care or that you are overworking them or stressing them out.  Some of those are genuinely curmudgeons and are not worthy of your time. Some of them are softies creating a tough external facade. However, the vast vast majority of mentors WANT to help.  Particularly faculty in veterinary medicine- we are almost all here because we love teaching. Please give us the opportunity to help.
  6. It seems like more work than it’s worth.  Particularly if approaching someone is already hard, you may feel that you’ll go to an easier-to-approach person (like the vet you worked with when you were a high school student instead of the professor you worked with last year).  You figure you’ll just handle writing your application yourself without bothering anyone. I understand that impulse, but you will never be as good as you are when others are helping you. Ask any successful person- no one goes it alone.
  7. You’ve tried in the past and it hasn’t gone well.  Maybe you reached out and even got snapped at, “You think I have time to help you!?!”  Successful people get knocked down and get back up. No one who has been successful hasn’t failed.  The question is: what are you going to do about it? Are you going to stay down, or are you going to get back on your feet and try again?  If you want to be successful, work on putting the past behind you and focus on where you want to go and what you need to do.

Those are the reasons my editors and I can think of which impede people from seeking help and being comfortable asking for letters of recommendation.  I understand them but, at the end of the day, I think each of these is absolutely unhelpful for your professional success. Ideally, you will develop a realistic sense of your capabilities, be positive, take criticism well, and ignore others when they hurt you emotionally.  This is my suggested path, but I realize there are other paths which may be equally effective. If you have walked a different path to success, share it in the comments!

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