Posted by: Dave Richeson | January 2, 2009

Asking for a letter of recommendation

Here is my advice to students who need to ask their professor for a letter of recommendation.

  1. Ask your professor nicely and politely. You do not have to ask the professor in person, but do not ask the professor in a quickly jotted, informal email in all lower case!
  2. Early, early, early. It takes time and care to write a good letter of recommendation and professors are busy. Ask for the letter well in advance of the due date. How far in advance? The earlier the better–at least a month before the due date to be safe. Never ask for a letter with fewer than two weeks until the deadline. Don’t forget to tell the professor the due date of application!
  3. Give the professor talking points. Just because you did well in the professor’s class doesn’t mean that the professor knows you. This is very important: the more information you give the professor, the better the letter your professor can write! If you inform your professor that you won a college-wide academic award, then that information will likely end up in your letter. You may want to provide some or all of the following…
    - Information about your experiences with the letter-writer (e.g., courses taken, class project topics, etc.)
    - Your resume or curriculum vitae
    - Information about the program to which you’re applying
    - Honor societies to which you belong
    - Anything that makes you unique
    - Awards that you have won
    - Relevant work experience or internships
    - Service activities such as volunteer work
    - Copies of admissions essays
    - Anything you want included in the letter
  4. Make your professor’s job easy. Fill out as much information as you can. If the recommendation is on a graduate school form, then write the professor’s name, address, phone number, etc. on the form before you give it to the professor. If the recommendation needs to be mailed, give the professor a pre-addressed envelope. These courtesies are especially important if the professor must write several recommendations for you.
  5. Waive your rights. Many letters of recommendation allow you to chose whether you waive or retain your rights to see the letter. You should always waive your rights. The readers of the letter will give the letter more weight. Many letter-writers won’t write a non-confidential letter. If you’re nervous that the letter-writer won’t write you a good letter of recommendation, then ask someone else!
  6. Beware of spam filters. Many schools and programs have online applications in which the professor must upload the letter of recommendation. It is not uncommon for the email messages from these schools to get bannished to the “junk” mailbox by spam filters. Make sure your professor received the email from the school.
  7. Follow up. The absent minded professor is more than just a cliche. Your professor may forget to write your letter. Don’t be afraid to check in periodically with your professor to see if the recommendation has been sent. Just be careful not to be a nag.
  8. Thank your professor! Write a thank-you note to your letter-writer (at least an email thank-you note)!
  9. Did you get it? Let your professor know if you get the job, the intership, or the spot in graduate school. They want to know!
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Responses

  1. You forgot about the money.

  2. Okay, so in my case it is quite clear that comment moderation is necessary.

  3. I just finished a round of these, and what I found to be the most helpful:

    a list of the schools in one location (email was fine), ideally organized by due date

    a list of classes that the person had taken with me so that I could quickly go to those courses and use that to job my memory (or comment about the student’s rank in the class, if appropriate)

    a resume and a copy of transcripts

    a reminder of things that I was involved with is also good [like if they served on a student committee for the math department or took the Putnam].

    My letters tended to focus very heavily on things that I have personal knowledge of, but having a list to help me remember can be a real benefit towards writing a personalized recommendation.


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