How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Author(s): Deven Wisner, M.S.

Originally posted: February 18, 2015

Hot tip: If you’re thinking about who will write your letters of recommendation (LOR), it’s a great time to decide how you’re going to handle the entire process of earning them, requesting them, and staying on top of receiving them. - Dr. BP

By now you’ve likely figured out that LORs don’t magically show up in a pretty sealed envelope delivered by pigeon…and if you haven’t, I don’t apologize for crushing your dreams. Why you ask? The letters that you will earn (that’s key) shouldn’t be written by just anyone, because they will be an important factor in your graduate application process. These letters provide human insight to your experience, work ethics, academic records, and many other aspects considered by committees. Do you really want just anyone writing something that important?

If you’re like me, you will have a few professors end the semester with a farewell and an offer to write recommendations. In the event that you haven’t gathered many recommendations or opportunities to do so, it might sound appealing, but I would urge you to think twice before accepting (or at least consider how to proceed). Unless you’ve taken a few classes with the professor and held more than a few brief conversations with them, there can’t possibly be that much to write about you. The chances that you’re going to receive a LOR that hasn’t been edited, copied and pasted in for a bunch of other students are pretty high in that situation. My advice: take every opportunity to assist the professor, to enable him/her to write you a stronger, well-rounded letter. You might also feel more comfortable requesting that he/she focus on certain things that you feel make your application stand out.

On the same note, you might be overeager to have a LOR from a particular professor (i.e. the only one with a background in your field!) and ask them to write you a letter prematurely. Don’t be too discouraged when they decline, because they would only be able to write you the same bland letter as the generous professor. If you’re really set on earning a LOR from a particular professor, schedule a time to meet with them and take every initiative to work with them. For me, my first LOR decline led to pursuing (for over a year) an opportunity in an awesome lab – this one! The letter that Dr. Brown was able to write me was greatly improved by the variety of projects I worked on under her supervision. Of course, your performance is a key factor in receiving a strong LOR.

You might consider having at least one of the following as prerequisites to requesting a LOR:

  1. Successfully completed a few classes where you made yourself known to the professor,

  2. Fulfilled the role of a teaching assistant (AKA “preceptor”),

  3. Worked 3-5 months in a lab or successfully completed a project (such as an Independent Study) under their supervision.

Once you’ve determined the best professors to write your letters, you need to consider how you’re going to provide them with all the information they need to write you an outstanding recommendation.

  1. Before you can begin working on the materials to send to the professors writing your LORs, you will need to know what each school requires. From my experience, I can say that every school required something different; this can include requiring professors to upload your letter, complete any online questionnaire, or send their letter the “old fashioned way” via snail mail. I suggest keeping track of each school’s requirements in a spreadsheet and the requirements for the LOR can be a great addition (example coming soon!).

  2. After you’ve determined each school’s requirements, you can begin compiling your LOR packets. While I was always planning on submitting my requests with some sort of cover letter, it was Dr. Brown’s recap of her application process that encouraged me to outline everything in great detail. Here are the essential components of the packet:

    1. A cover letter (all of mine were unique to each professor)

      1. This is a great opportunity to remind them how you met and what you’ve done under their supervision – you should always include a list of any courses you’ve taken with them, what semester, what your final grade was and if you felt any particular project stood out you can mention that as well (colleges often ask them for this and if they have to go back through their records to find it your letters will take twice as long to write)

      2. Try to be clear about what you need/want them to concentrate on (grades, research, work ethic, etc.)

    2. Your most recent resume or curriculum vitae (whatever you’re submitting to schools)

    3. An outline of the programs you’re applying to, including the:

      1. Official name of the program

      2. Method in which the school will request the LOR

      3. Date that you would like the LOR submitted by

      4. Date the LOR must be received by

    4. Copies of LOR templates (for schools requiring the “old fashioned way”)

      1. Complete as much of the form as possible – don’t forget to sign anything you need to!

      2. Attach a posted and addressed envelope

        1. Some schools require that professors sign the envelope, so include a note indicating that this should be done.

  3. Once your packet is complete for each professor, you can request a meeting to deliver it

    1. Meetings allow you to go over everything in your packet and ensure everything is clear

    2. Professors have gone through the same thing, so this is a great time (if you haven’t already) to ask any last minute questions!

  4. Send thank-you e-mail for the meeting.

  5. About two weeks before the first deadline, try to follow up with an e-mail inquiring if they’ve experienced any issues with the LORs

    1. You can ask if they would like a reminder or not

  6. For those who want a reminder, be sure to remind them about a week and a half before the deadline

  7. Finally, you owe all of them thank you notes. For those that haven’t quite finished your letters, this also serves as a nice reminder.

Once you’ve ensured all your letters have reached the right place (most schools have an online tracker), it’s time to RELAX! Or finish your applications. If you’re like me, you’ll want to check your application statuses every hour or so. Instead, take the time refreshing your memory about the program and learning more about the field; this will help during interviews. Also, GradCafe is a great way to pass the time and connect with other students applying to graduate school. The results from the previous year are a good way to gauge when you will hear from your schools.

Good luck!

– Deven Wisner

Images sourced by the author.