How do I ask for letters of recommendation?
September 1, 2009 1:23 PM   Subscribe

When and how should I ask for letters of recommendation?

I am applying to grad school this year, and applications are due in December. I will be asking professors and people I've worked for for letters of recommendation... I just haven't got the slightest clue how to go about doing it, as I've never done anything that's required a letter of recommendation before.
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Education (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
"Would you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation?"

Also, they will want to do a good job at writing your letter, so (at least in the working world, if not the professors) you'll want to be ready to help them: They will want to know what's important to mention, and which projects/skills/etc. they should highlight in the letter.
posted by Houstonian at 1:26 PM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Ask now. They're used to it and are likely expecting it. Just be polite, grateful, and remember to tell them anything you would like them to know about why you're applying.

Be sure to make it as easy as possible for them. Have all the forms they need. Be sure you've signed them up on all the online applications. It's unlikely, but if they have to mail a paper copy on letterhead, give them an addressed, stamped envelope.

Also, include the deadline in your initial email to them, which is a perfectly appropriate way to ask for a recommendation in most cases. Good luck with your applications!
posted by nosila at 1:28 PM on September 1, 2009

And what Houstonian said.
posted by nosila at 1:28 PM on September 1, 2009

Weirdly, a lot of times you ask people for recommendations one of the things they say is "what do you want me to write?" or some variation. If you have a bulleted list of things you're particularly proud of, or things that you think are worthy of a call-out, be sure to include that when you follow up with them [i.e. after they've said yes]. Some people are totally okay writing their own rec's, some people prefer to have a bit of an outline prepared, at least in my experience.
posted by jessamyn at 1:30 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Simply explain what you are doing, and ask if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation. Provide them with the name of the person it should be addressed to, details on the program you're applying for (so they can be specific in their recommendations), and an addressed, stamped envelope.

Sometimes, people will ask that YOU write the letter, and they'll just sign it. Be prepared and willing to do this. In that case, a five minute conversation with them about what you should write so that it sounds like it's coming from them is a good idea. That's a whole other can of worms, which has been addressed here before.

I did this when I applied to grad school last year, and it wasn't that big of a deal. Everyone I asked was happy to do so, one person asked me to write the letter myself, and the whole process went very smoothly.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:30 PM on September 1, 2009

In addition to what's been said above, when you ask, you may want to remind them of what courses you took with them and what major projects you completed for each class. That helps them write more specific letters. For example, they can say something like "Buddah's final project for Super Advanced Class stood out for its deft use of Important Theory and blah, blah, blah". Those specifics help you stand out from the pile of "I highly recommend student x for grad school" letters without specifics.

It's ok to ask them to highlight certain things, and they'll probably appreciate the direction.
posted by BlooPen at 1:36 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, if you're considering applying for external funding, know that many of the larger/national funding opportunities have earlier deadlines, like November or even October. It may feel odd to apply for funding before you've been accepted anywhere or know where you're going, but it's something to consider. Many of those applications also require letters of recommendation as well.
posted by clerestory at 1:43 PM on September 1, 2009

One of my referees asked if I still had any copies of the papers I had written for her, preferably the ones with her comments on it (I did). If you've kept any computer or hard copies of your good work, now's the time to bust them out to remind them of your areas of interest and ability to string sentences together. They do this all the time and it's no big deal unless you did really shitty work for them in the past. Your other question is "when?" nosila already gave you the answer above. Good luck!
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:15 PM on September 1, 2009

Oh, and as a professor who is asked to do this for students, I sometimes ask the student for a copy of the application letter they are sending off. It invariably lists the students strengths for this particular opportunity and if I can emphasize them in my recommendation letter I do so.

I recommend asking your references if they can provide a strong recommendation. If they agree, make their life easy and impress them with your preparedness. Put together a single email or packet with the following:
* Provide the form they have to fill out (if any)
* Say where they have to send the form or letter. If it takes snail mail provide a stamped and filled-out envelope.
* If you don't know this person really well, provide a list of ways this person should know you and relevant details (ex: I took your class X in Fall 2008, I received an A and wrote a term paper on indigenous acidic fire-breathing termites)
* Provide a copy of the application essay you have written.
* Provide a clear indication of the date this is due.

Finally, do all this well ahead of the deadline (a month is great). Follow up with an email about a week away reminding them of the deadline, and another just 2-3 days away.

(About 20% of the students impress me by doing the above. About 20% really unimpress me by asking at the last minute and by not having any idea what I am supposed to do for them, making me hunt through web sites for stuff they should have figured out.)
posted by Tallguy at 2:27 PM on September 1, 2009 [12 favorites]

Ask as soon as possible as professors are typically none too enthused about writing recommendations near Thanksgiving and as the academic semester is winding down. When I was applying for post-grad schools, I emailed my professors and explained that I was about to begin the application process and wondered whether they could possibly write me a letter of recommendation. I was sure to choose only the professor I had some kind of rapport with (and of course - I did very well in their classes). Once the professors agreed to write my letter of recommendation, I usually personally went to their office to hand them a copy of my academic resume and a couple of them subjected me to a mini-interview so that they would have material to cite to in their letter.
It's a little daunting to ask for letters of recommendations, or it was for me, but thankfully of the few people I've asked to write me letters of rec - none have ever declined.
Good luck.
posted by TwiceTheRice at 2:42 PM on September 1, 2009

First, I asked my intended profs if they felt comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation. This is crucial, because letters of recommendation are supposed to be positively glowing. A lukewarm rec won't be regarded as mediocre but rather as a serious detriment to your application, so make sure that the folks you contact are going to write strong letters. They'll tell you if they don't feel comfortable doing so.

Then I provided each prof with the following:

A draft of the personal statement/letter of intent that I planned to use for my applications. You don't have to (and probably shouldn't) give them a different letter for each individual school, just sort of a proto-statement detailing your academic goals and research experience.

A copy of my transcripts and test scores (it doesn't need to be an official one).

A short reminder of any classes I took or research I conducted with the professor, and any writing samples from said classes that I thought were particularly good.

A spreadsheet containing information about each program I was applying to, my intended advisor at each program, a brief synopsis of said advisor's research (like one or two sentences), the format for the letter (if it's not electronic, you should provide any physical forms and pre-addressed stamped envelopes), and the due date at each program.

If you know the people you're asking particularly well, this probably seems like overkill. However, presenting your materials in such an organized way has a number of benefits. It shows your recommender that you're serious about applying to grad school and that you're taking the right steps to get in. It also makes it easy for the letter writer to construct and submit the letters.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:00 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

IAAP. In addition to what everyone else said: if you're going to give the prof old papers, transcripts, a cv, etc (the spreadsheet that solipsophistocracy suggests is excessive, in my opinion), it's great if you can drop off hard copies, rather than e-mail it all. I.e. one attachment is fine; 10 are not. You can either hand her this stuff, or let her know that you'll put it in her department mailbox soon.
posted by kestrel251 at 5:56 PM on September 1, 2009

While this doesn't help the OP, I'm going to mention it.

If you're in school and think you might be applying for more school, it's a really good idea to ask your professors to write the letters while you're still their student. I had a professor recommend this, and then I asked him to do it. This helps the professors because they actually remember the person that they're writing about, so it's easier for them, and the student gets a much more detailed letter.

Good luck with your applications!
posted by iliketolaughalot at 6:10 PM on September 1, 2009

having just gone through this process last year, my only regret is that i didn't get recommendations settled sooner. ask people asap, in person, and make sure that they are people who know you, for whom you have worked, or in whose class(es) you've done well (i'm assuming that most of your potential recommenders are professors.) also, don't discount contacts you will make this quarter/semester.

most of my grad school aps. were online, and had the recommender submit a form electronically. get these now. you can always have more than one recommendation, or you can always send the school whichever recommendations you think are best.

good luck!
posted by chicago2penn at 6:20 PM on September 1, 2009

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