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The Shelf Life of Recommendation Letters

Each of us has a short list tucked away someplace: the handful of people who say nice things about us and are willing to serve as recommendations. By their very nature, recommendations are favorably biased–we’re more likely to provide the names of the people who view us as successes, rather than failures, so this is a less a scientific examination and more of a praise-a-thon. But what if you want to use your member of Congress’ office on your short list, even if your internship was back in the days of Speaker Dennis Hastert? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I used to intern on the Hill. What is proper etiquette on using my recommendation letter from the Member’s office once he or she is out of office?

A. Hmm, Hill Navigator is not sure if you mean a “recommendation” — like having a former co-worker attest to your stellar interpersonal skills — or an actual letter, which once upon a time people would produce as validations of their good character. Let’s start with the latter: Letters, rather than conversations, can live on for eternity. If you want to apply to grad school and need a letter of recommendation, you could certainly make the case to include a former Member of Congress. But the best letters of recommendations are personalized — both about the applicant and for the application.  

For most jobs, employers rely on a short list of references to have a phone (or email) conversation about what kind of person you are, or if you’d be a good fit, or if you’re a weasel who steals coffee K-cups.  

Such information is less likely to come from a member of Congress and more likely to be from one of the staffers who worked directly with you. If you had a good relationship with one of those staffers, they will likely be a BETTER reference for you than the member. That is right, staffers can trump members on this.  

Sure, a member can help get you a spot on the FCC, or a senator can nominate you for a judgeship, but you’re likely not at that point in your career. (Not yet, at least. Hill Navigator has faith in you!) You need someone who can speak specifically, articulately and genuinely about your work ethic. Who better than the person who taught you to log constituent correspondence?  

A good rule of thumb about a recommendation’s shelf life is less about how much time has passed since you worked there and more about how much time has passed since you’ve connected with your old office. Do you keep in touch with your intern coordinator? Did you take a weekend to canvass for the re-election campaign? Do you stop by and say “hello” if you’re walking the halls of Rayburn? If so, the recommendation could serve you well for years to come.  

And when the time comes to offer names for references, take the opportunity to talk to your old office. Don’t just hand over their phone number and email address without letting them know they could be expecting a call from your future employer.  

And if Hill Navigator can impart ANY wisdom at all to you, it is to follow up with a thank you card anytime someone goes to bat for you. Even if you’re dusting off their old recommendation letter for your law school application, take the time to express your gratitude. This increases your likelihood of using your old office as a recommendation in future opportunities, and it could even improve the glowing things they say about you.  

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