How to Get Really Great Recommendations Notes [Episode 235]
Joe Pavlisko is the founder of Referrio, a start-up that makes getting and writing recommendations easy. Joe graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a concurrent master’s degree in finance. In addition to English, Joe speaks Spanish and German and taught English in rural Spain. After graduating from college he went to work as a data scientist at Autobytel. He left after two years to found Referrio.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Your background and where you grew up? [1:33]
You already covered a lot of it in your intro, but I’ll add that I was a foreign exchange student in high school. I was one of those people who never knew what I wanted to do – I was excited by everything. I went from econ in undergrad to computer science in grad school. I am from Cleveland but ended up at Alabama – beautiful weather helped!
How did you come to found Referrio and what is it? [2:57]
Referrio is a platform that makes writing letters of recommendation simple. It can be used for college, grad school, jobs, study abroad, whatever. You get the recommendation once (you can never see it, it is always confidential), but you can reuse it anytime for the rest of your life.
Referrio makes it easy for the recommender since it formats the letter, inputs dates, names, contact info, recipient name and contact info, which is entered in box format online. The only thing the recommender has to do is write a 3-5 paragraph letter body. We have also curated advice from the Harvard admissions office on how to write paragraph by paragraph in a really compelling way.
Let’s say I was going to use Referrio for two letters of recommendation. What steps would I have to take? [4:22]
You would login to the platform and select that you are asking for a letter of recommendation. A few questions will flash through – where is it going, who are the recipients, universities applying to, how it will be sent (email, physical address), that type of thing. Then we will ask for all the information we can about the recommender – name, email, professional address to plug into the letter body. We ask you to give the recommender a few bullet points to talk about. We don’t ask for a resume since we don’t want a recommender just rehashing your resume. Instead we ask you to remind the recommender of some moments spent together that showed positive personal qualities about you. Then we send the request to the letter writer.
How much does it cost? [5:57]
It is free. With the free version you can use the letters for one year. The Plus version allows you to reuse recos anytime for the rest of your life (for a fee of $17.99/year) .
How does Referrio help recommenders to write the recommendations? [6:56]
First with all the stuff I previously mentioned – saving them time not having to put in recipients, addresses, etc. The only thing they have to do is the 3-5 paragraph letter body. We even do the formatting. We did a lot of research on what types of formatting are appealing and ours is ranked very high. It looks pretty, and that can really make a difference. It updates for every recipient. We also have a letter writing wizard to help. If the recommendee wants to reuse the letter, the recommender is sent an email, “Is Joe allowed to reuse this letter?” So the recommenders always have control of when/where their letter can be used.
How are schools reacting to this? [9:42]
This is the first year we are sending this out to schools, so we don’t have any concrete information yet, but I can’t imagine it won’t be positive. We really hope this levels the playing field from an admissions perspective. If you come from a private school with guidance counselors and teachers trained on how to write great letters of recommendation you are going to probably get a great letter, whereas someone coming from a disadvantaged background might not get as strong a letter. Neither is a reflection of the student, right? Because we can provide top tier advice, admissions committees will be able to compare applicants in a more apples to apples way.
How does it interact with schools who want recommenders to send them recommendations directly? Or using a particular interface? Or committee letters, like for med school? [12:46]
We can’t of course fill out a form, and there is no reusability, so there is no way for us to create a lot of value there. We are focused on the actual letter component. Some schools with forms allow applicants to separately upload letters. Or recommenders can tweak letters, download them from our site and then upload them directly. In the majority of cases we can still send along even with separate forms.
One thing we recommend at Accepted is that letters of recommendation are tailored to a particular program. Does your system allow for that? [14:57]
Yes. It’s really dependent on what the recommender wants to do. With our research we’ve definitely seen how readers perceive a personalized letter more positively. Our software allows recommenders to send a tailored version to each university. It’s really designed to make life easier for a recommender asked to write recommendations for say 10 schools. Most recommenders won’t have the time to customize that many (beyond school name/recipient, of course), but if they want to take the extra effort they can absolutely do so.
How can applicants get great recommendations from their recommenders? [17:53]
First, recommendees should look for a story for their recommender to tell. If there are certain characteristics that you think your application should highlight, you should remind your letter writer about something that reinforces that. Reminding them of specifics rather than handing them a resume makes an enormous difference. The most important thing a letter writer can do is tell a story, not list facts. Not “Joe works really hard,” but “Joe stuck around in my classroom for 2-3 hours after school one day to prepare for an upcoming test.” Obviously the reader can perceive that Joe works hard, and it cements it much more. Second, make it as easy as possible for them. If you don’t use Referrio, you want to help your letter writer to be enthusiastic while working on your letter. Download a beautiful letter template, and update it for your recommenders. Plug in all the information you can in advance. Email them the blank Word document with space for the 3-5 paragraph letter body. Then you can present it as, “I wanted to save you as much time as I could. The only thing you need to do is the letter body.” Your recommenders see you being thoughtful, which leaves a great impression, and you can be confident you will get a better letter since you know it is already personalized.
How can recommenders writer powerful, compelling recommendations that provide the third-party perspective and endorsement applicants need? [21:39]
The number one thing is telling that story. If you are just listing stuff from their resume it has no impact. The point of the letter of recommendation is to add the human side. The essay does it as well, but obviously the recommendation letter provides a third-party perspective. The biggest misperception people have about letters of recommendation is that somehow you should wow the reader with all the applicant has accomplished. Instead, the letter should reveal the qualities the applicant has that are relevant to being accepted. Telling a story about a specific time together is the best thing.
Let’s go back to Referrio for a moment. I know there are listeners with their own start-up dreams listening. What’s been the hardest part for you in getting Referrio off the ground? [25:18]
This is true for anything in life, I suppose – when you start something new, you don’t know what you are doing. I had not previously run a business, I wasn’t a software engineer. The amount of learning necessary – software engineering, marketing, researching recommendations to make sure we were creating a product with value – was a lot. I think the number one thing was underestimating the amount of barriers that would stand in the way. If you can keep overcoming those, keep making progress, you’ll eventually get there.
How did you get the idea for Referrio? [26:35]
In high school I applied to be a foreign exchange student in Germany. I then applied to National Honor Society, applied to many different universities, applied to scholarships, applied to studied abroad in Morocco, applied to teach English abroad during senior year, applied to grad school. I needed letters of recommendation all the time, and had to go back to my recommenders time and again. I felt bad for burdening them with so much work, asking them to do me a favor again and again and again. Also, the letter of recommendation is the aspect of an application you have the least control over. You don’t know if what you got was good. So one, it was to make it easy as possible on the recommender, and two, to make it as good as possible. I essentially scratched my own itch.
I noticed that Referrio is headquartered in Cleveland Ohio, where you moved from Boston. I understand that Cleveland is a wonderful place to live, but it’s not known as a start-up hot-spot – like Boston, LA, NYC or of course Silicon Valley. Why did you choose to launch your business from Cleveland? [29:19]
It’s a combination. One, I am from here and have connections here. Two, the real concept of Referrio is about opportunity. You want to apply to whatever, you need the letter of recommendation, it’s kind of a pain, but don’t let it get in your way, be confident you have a tool that is helpful to you. It allows users to expand their opportunities to pursue goals they want to pursue. I wanted to launch somewhere where there is less opportunity – in a place that could use a little more opportunity.
What do you find most rewarding in founding and running your own business? [31:51]
I think it is just an exciting thing to do. This is a product I wanted to create because of a problem in my life. It would have had value for me when I was younger. It feels good knowing it will be helpful for others in similar situations to mine. I really believe in our product.
What’s in your crystal ball for Referrio? [33:50]
It depends on what consumers end up wanting. One product we are thinking about, is since these recommendations already exist, potential employers may want to see some of this information. Forms are also on our minds. We are young and nimble and we’ll see where the market takes us.
What do you wish I had asked you? [34:13]
You did a great job! I will say, that if you are listening and this intrigues you, we are a small team always looking for feedback from people. Let us know your thoughts, we are very open to them.
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