Letters of Recommendation
This page details some the points that came up during a class conversation about how difficult it can be to reach out to professors to ask about rec letters. This is intended to provide a general overview of strategies for being professional and thoughtful when requesting letters of recommendation from instructors in general (not just from me).
Before making your request, think back on your level of class participation. It’s a good idea to choose your recommenders based not only on your level of academic proficiency in their course(s), but also on your own level of participation during course discussions.
While instructors often simply refuse to write letters for students they wouldn’t recommend to a position or program, not every positive recommendation letter achieves the desired effect. Even with no personal malice, rec letters can damn with faint praise. In order to write a detailed and convincing letter, instructors need to remember moments where you shone as a strong student and as a respectful course participant. When considering who to ask for a rec letter, make sure you think of someone who has enough information about your strengths and good qualities to bring them up in writing. If you don’t feel like you demonstrated attention to course goals and respect for your peers in a class, do not contact that course’s instructor for a letter.
Making your request:
Instructors need a few pieces of information in order to write strong letters.
- Plenty of time. Especially during busy times of the semester or during application seasons, instructors need a significant amount of advance warning to ensure that they can make the time to craft a detailed and thoughtful letter. It’s likely that they are also writing letters for other students, so it’s a good idea to make sure that you come across as a responsible candidate. (Keep in mind that even if they regard you highly, instructors may not be able to write additional letters if they already have too much on their plates.) Make sure that you specify when the materials are due in your request.
- Information about the application and about the recommendation process. Make sure your instructor knows what it is that the letter is for and what the organization has said about its own goals. Provide links to relevant information (organization, internship description, etc.). It is also important to provide an idea of what type of recommendation the organization requires. (Is it a series of short essay responses? A formal letter? A form full of checkboxes to fill out?)
- A sense of how and why the application or job connects to your interests or goals.
- A sense of why the skills you worked on in the instructor’s class may be relevant to the position or program. (AKA: why might this particular instructor be the right person to represent you to another organization?)
- Finally, when you reach the point in your correspondence when this is appropriate–(that is, after the instructor has agreed to write you a letter)–do not forget to provide information about the submission format.
- If the submission is by mail, it’s considered good form to include an envelope with postage attached.
- Your instructor may also ask you to pick up the sealed recommendation envelope at the department office so that you can include it with your application packet. If this is the case, factor this pick-up into your schedule for the week to ensure that you’re not under any type of last-minute time pressure.
It’s also a good idea to offer to make an office-hours appointment with the instructor you’re contacting so that they can ask you the types of follow-up questions that might allow them to write a detailed letter. Not every instructor will set up a meeting, but if you’re requesting a letter from me, know that I request a recommendation discussion meeting in most cases. (This is because I want as detailed and effective a letter as possible!)