Right and Wrong Ways to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation
Article contributed by graduate-school expert Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.
All graduate-school applicants have to do it. Successful applicants may have to do it again and again while in graduate school, whenever they apply for a scholarship, a fellowship, or an internship. It is normal to feel a bit uneasy -- uncertain how to do it properly -- unsure of what to say. For many students, asking a professor for a letter of recommendation can be a bit intimidating, to say the least.
But, apart from having to deal with a few uncomfortable moments, does it really matter how you go about obtaining the necessary letters of recommendation? After all, its just simply a matter of asking someone for a favor, isn’t it? In fact, the process of soliciting letters of recommendation is not a trivial concern. Failing to do it right, might have any or all of the following consequences: 1) A less effective recommendation. 2) The person might not want to write letters for you in the future. 3) More awkward feelings the next time you have to ask someone for a letter of recommendation.
College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants to graduate school should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. Some programs may have special expectations concerning the sources for letters of recommendation, so read all application instructions carefully.
Many students feel some trepidation about approaching a professor to ask for a letter of recommendation, but writing these letters is something any professor expects to be doing each year around the time when students are applying to graduate school. As long as a student demonstrates good judgment and tact when asking for a letter of recommendation, most professors are willing to help.
How to ask for a letter of recommendation
Properly requesting a letter of recommendation involves at least two stages: The initial request should normally be made either in person or by email. You are only looking for your referees’ commitment, at this point. (The person who writes a letter of recommendation is called a referee). In the second stage, you will provide the referee with things to help them put together an effective letter of recommendation.
There is nothing complicated about making the initial request for a letter. Just indicate that you will be applying to graduate school soon and that you are wondering whether he or she would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. You should also indicate how many programs you plan to apply to, so they know how many versions (i.e., slightly modified copies) they would be expected to make. It’s simple as that.
If you decide to ask someone in person, however, you should be prepared to answer certain questions in case you are asked. Be prepared to explain if someone wants to know more details about your graduate school or career plans. One must be prepared to answer a question like this without making a bad impression! This is not to suggest that email is a better way to request a favor from someone. Most professors appreciate it when a student shows the maturity and good judgment to drop by and make such a request, in person.
Expect that some of the people you ask by email will not reply to your initial request. Do not take it personally. Do not assume that you are being intentionally ignored. It is more likely that you’ve just been forgotten among the dozens of other things a professor may be asked by email in a typical day. Try again in a week, and if you still don’t hear back within a few days, consider making a visit to their office to ask them in person. If you can’t find them there, and your email is still not answered, then you might be better off just moving on to someone else. Someone who is extremely busy probably won’t put in much time or effort to write a really good letter for you, anyway.
After someone has agreed to write a letter of recommendation for you, the second step is to arrange a brief meeting to give them materials that will make their task of writing your letter easier. You may appear presumptuous if you come to their office to make your initial request carrying a copy of your transcripts or c.v. before they have even agreed to do this for you. This material should, therefore, be provided on a separate occasion, and usually at the same time that you give them any evaluation forms to fill out and the addresses and deadlines of the programs to which you are applying.
If you are applying to multiple programs and will be requesting more than one letter from your referees, then it is very important that you organize all of the material for them. Prepare a cover letter that lists the programs that you are applying to and the application deadlines. If possible, put all of the information on one page. Make sure that you fill out as many parts of the evaluation forms as you can before giving them to your referees. It can be irritating to have to fill in line items on a form that the student could have filled in themselves.
Some programs request that referees send their letters directly to the department or to the School or Faculty of Graduate Studies, by regular mail. Other programs ask instead that letters are given to the applicants in a sealed envelope, which the referee signs across the flap, so that the applicant can submit the letters together with the rest of their application materials. Make sure you clearly indicate to your referees whether they are supposed to send their letters directly to the program, or keep them for you to pick-up.
If you are applying to a program where you will have a graduate supervisor, and if any of your referees work in the same field as your prospective supervisor, then make sure you tell them who this person is. One or more of your referees may know your prospective supervisor personally, or at least know about the kind of research this person does. This may enable them to customize your letter in a way that makes it more relevant to the prospective supervisor’s needs and interests. There is no guarantee they will make that special effort, of course, but why not give them every potentially useful bit of information, just in case they want to use it, to your benefit.
Don’t forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort they will spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you may spend a few hours writing an effective letter of recommendation. Most professors are busier people than they appear to be. Whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school, they have taken valuable time out of their busy schedules to help you.
The right time to ask for a letter
Application deadlines vary significantly across different graduate programs, and some even accept applications any time of the year. Whatever situation is most common depends on the discipline in question, but for most programs that start in August or September of a given year, application deadlines are typically between the preceding December and March.
The initial request for a letter of recommendation should come between three and six weeks before the deadline by which it is needed, in most cases. Two weeks in advance is acceptable to most professors, but less time than that will get some a bit agitated. Any professor may be busy with other things, and will probably be writing letters for several other students around the same time. It is quite inconsiderate to request a letter of recommendation too close to the deadline by which it is needed, and the person you are asking is likely to perceive it that way. How do you think this will make them feel about putting extra effort into your letter? Last-minute requests will also make you seem disorganized, and that impression might also make its way into your letter.
Help them write effective letters
It is sometimes argued that letters of recommendation are not very useful for discriminating between applicants because all letters are basically good, and so they have little impact on the outcome of the application. This is only half true. It is definitely true that nearly all letters of recommendation for graduate school say only good things about the student, and recommend that he or she be accepted. Despite this, however, nearly anyone who actually makes decisions about whether to accept or reject graduate-school applicants will tell you that the letters of recommendation are extremely influential in guiding those decisions. A single statement in one letter of recommendation can sometimes make the difference between a successful graduate school application and an unsuccessful one. More often than not, however, the standard, polite, vague, and positive statements fail to make any impression at all. That kind of impact from a letter of recommendation can be fatal to the hopes of an applicant, especially when other applicants are probably getting more effective letters.
One reason why letters sometimes end up consisting mostly of vague compliments without any convincing demonstrations of the applicant’s real merits is that the referee has to come up with everything from scratch. Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant, and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotes or other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so that it is truly convincing.
Applicants can ease the burden on their referees by furnishing them with material to use to prepare the letter. Keep in mind that these people will probably be busy writing letters of recommendation for other students around the same time. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible.
One idea you might consider is to compile your own self-sketch, providing a brief synopsis of your qualifications, emphasizing some of the things that could be mentioned in a letter of recommendation. Provide an overview of your relevant background. Just one or two short paragraphs, not some long and detailed personal statement. Many professors like to see a year-by-year chronological summary of the relevant experience and accomplishments. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration.
Give a copy to your referees when you solicit letters from them along with a copy of your transcripts. Your c.v. might be helpful, too, but only if it is substantial in terms of academic awards or research experience; otherwise, don’t bother, as it might do more harm than good if it makes you seem average. If you provide all of your referees with your self-sketch, there may be some consistency among them in terms of what they say about you. This consistency will strengthen the combined impact of your letters.
Waive the right to see your letters
At some schools, letters of recommendation are confidential. Although the letters might stay in a student’s file for years after acceptance into the program, the student never gets to see them. At other institutions, the letters are not confidential unless the applicant waives the right to see them. At a small number of schools, there is no confidentiality whatsoever concerning letters of recommendation; the applicant always has the right to see them. State laws often determine a university’s policy on confidentiality of letters of recommendation.
In most cases, applicants should waive the right to see their letters of recommendation, if given the opportunity to do so. Doing so conveys self-confidence, and it also makes it less likely that a prospective supervisor or an admissions committee will devalue the positive comments made in those letters, which could happen if they suspected that the referees’ comments were influenced by knowing that you could see what they wrote.
The referee will be expected to either send the letter and any evaluation form directly to the graduate school by regular mail, or give the letter to the student in a sealed and signed envelope to submit along with the rest of the application materials. More and more graduate programs require applicants to submit most or all application materials on their website, and also ask those who write letters of recommendation to submit them electronically. Regardless of what is expected of the referee, it is entirely up to the applicant to make sure everything is submitted on time. Do not just assume that someone will remember to put it in the mail by the date required to meet an application deadline, or to send it by email to the program director.
Applicants should send a polite email to their referees a few days before the deadline to confirm that the letters will be ready on time. Mention the deadline again, but don’t be pushy. Its not necessary to send more than one reminder, if it is timed properly. Do not send the reminder more than one-week before the deadline, otherwise it is more likely to be put aside until later, and more likely to be simply forgotten by mistake until the deadline passes.
Requesting letters is simple, but does require good judgment and organizational skills on your part, which consequently are also important assets for succeeding in graduate school. Use this opportunity to show that you are capable of handling the challenges that lie ahead, and in turn you will also increase your chances of getting into graduate school dramatically.
Check out these related articles on how to get effective letters of recommendation from the right people and how to get a convincing letter of recommendation from the right source.
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