Can I ask for grad school recommendation letters through email?
January 13, 2011 9:44 AM   Subscribe

How do I ask for letters of recommendation for grad school when I can't meet with the professors in person?

I recently graduated and immediately moved back to my hometown, several hours away. Now I have decided to apply to grad school and need recommendation letters. Everything I see online points to asking the professors in person, but I don't have a budget that will let me travel back to my college city to do that. Is it appropriate to ask for recommendation letters through email? While I would call, the school won't start up again until early February and I am 90% certain that my profs aren't in residence right now.

Other questions: My application is due March 1. Can I ask right now? What kind of leeway do people like to have when writing these letters?

Also, I am asking two professors from my most recent semester. I worked with them closely. For my third recommendation, I am not sure who to ask: a professor who is higher up in the department hierarchy, or one who is lower on the totem pole and might not even be an adjunct, which I am checking on, but who steered me into a departmental program that is only available to students upon recommendation.

Any other advice for grad school application etiquette would be appreciated.

Anon because I am embarrassed that I don't know more about this process. I am the first person in my family to even go to college and don't have anyone nearby to talk to about this. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Education (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's absolutely appropriate given your location constraints. You could even mention that in the email, as in "I'd love to be able to meet with you in person, but since I'm in _________ for now I'm afraid I can't." If you worked closely with these professors they will almost certainly write you a recommendation, so don't stress about asking- it's part of their job, and from what I've heard one of the more pleasant ones, at least when a student they know personally is involved.

As for your third rec, a recommendation from someone who knows you is always preferable, unless this professor you're referring to who is "higher up in the department hierarchy" has a reputation in the field to which you are applying. If so, go for them: considering you have two recommendations in the bag from professors who have a relationship with your already, it can only help.

I found it extremely helpful to ask questions of my undergrad professors and get them engaged in the graduate school application process with me. Everyone likes to be asked for expert advice, and professors almost always want to see their students succeed, so while it might seem like an imposition, don't be afraid to use them.

Good luck!
posted by libertypie at 9:52 AM on January 13, 2011

Email is the way to go, or even a snail mail letter. No one expects you to show up like a humble supplicant (in fact, you're doing them the favor by not taking time out of their day to set up the appointment, meet, etc..)

I'm sure the profs. check their emails before February, but you can always call the dept. and ask the secy/assistant what's the best way to reach the profs.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:55 AM on January 13, 2011

It's perfectly acceptable to send an email asking for a letter of recommendation. I recently did this when I was applying to graduate school. It worked just fine.

In your email correspondence, include the name of the school and the program you're applying to, as well as the due date for the application. It can be as simple as:

Dear Professor X,

I'm in the process of applying to the X Graduate program at X University and I was wondering if you would be able to write a letter of recommendation for me. The application is due March 1st. If you are able to do so, please send me your mailing address and I will send you more information.

Thank you,

Obviously, you can personalize your email and make it more specific, as you see fit.

If they agree, send them the following documents via snail mail:
- your resume/CV*
- your personal statement for the application*
- a stamped envelope with the address of the program to which you're applying
- any other documentation they're required to submit

* you can also email them an additional copy of these documents

When you receive your admissions decision letter, be sure to send your professors a thank you note, including the outcome of your application, as soon as possible.

Also, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I'm the first in my family to graduate from college as well, and I know that navigating the higher ed. system can be very overwhelming. Many people, even some of your own professors, were in the same situation during their academic years. Celebrate the fact that you've made it this far!
posted by chara at 9:56 AM on January 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've always asked for recommendation letters by e-mail (because my professors tend to be busy, and because I feel super-awkward asking for recs face-to-face), and it has never been a problem. I didn't even know the practice was frowned upon.

And the earlier you ask, the better! Some professors like to knock them out far in advance and some like to wait until the last minute, but it's good to give them at least a month's notice (I usually aim for 6 weeks) so that they can add it to their to-do list.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 9:57 AM on January 13, 2011

I'd call or email and solicit their cooperation. You can sometimes volunteer to write the letter for them, but only if they're agreeable and only if you're a very good writer.
posted by Hylas at 10:03 AM on January 13, 2011

Previous advice on asking for letters.
posted by RogerB at 10:08 AM on January 13, 2011

Echoing much of the above, I think that email is fine. Make sure that you have a very clear subject line: "request for letter of recommendation for NAME" or something like that. Profs are inundated with email and this would help. You need to supply some details of where you want to go and why.

If you do not hear by a week before the deadline, send a reminder.

Personally, I would balance influence within the department/field, with the extent to which they know you and can supply a personal recommendation.
posted by carter at 10:15 AM on January 13, 2011

Anon because I am embarrassed that I don't know more about this process. I am the first person in my family to even go to college and don't have anyone nearby to talk to about this.

So you're probably imagining that there is A Proper Way to do these things, and that everyone else applying for grad school this year already knows what it is. Lemme reassure you: it's not like that at all. My dad and two of my uncles are professors, I practically grew up in the faculty lounge of my dad's department, and I was still totally clueless about the nitty-gritty details of the application process.

The "proper way" to do something like this is, you ask your professors point blank, "Hey, how does this work?" Then they give you advice and instructions. Doing this is part of their job descriptions, and they probably enjoy it. Anyway, they'll be used to walking students through the process — even students with umpteen gazillion Ph.D's in their extended families — and asking questions rather than making assumptions is the sort of thing that will reflect well on you.

So just ask. Send email now. Be direct. Say "Hey, I'm applying to grad schools, and I'd like a letter of recommendation and also some advice on the application process. I'm not in town; could we talk on the phone sometime?" Don't grovel or put yourself down; don't apologize for asking. This is a normal, everyday, straightforward thing. The more directly you approach it, the more direct answers you'll get and the less mysterious the whole thing will feel by the time you're done.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:17 AM on January 13, 2011

I emailed all three of my professors, with the application form and my CV once they accepted. It was a smooth process and they were all receptive to being able to do it on their own time.
posted by dflemingecon at 10:22 AM on January 13, 2011

E-mail is not just OK—it is better as it takes less time out of their schedule.
posted by grouse at 10:31 AM on January 13, 2011

Email is fine, even preferred. It also makes it easier for the prof to politely decline should they feel they don't know you well enough.
posted by deadweightloss at 10:38 AM on January 13, 2011

I enthusiastically second what nebulawindphone is saying. There is no reason to be embarrassed about asking all kinds of questions at any stage of this process; in fact, your professors will probably think better of you for it. If you're around, go to their office hours; if not, set up a scheduled phone call or ask if it's okay to send them some questions by email. (A more informal phone conversation may be easier for a busy professor than asking them to compose a detailed point-by-point email.) If your major department has a director of undergraduate studies or some similar point-person for its undergrad program, then that person is fair game to ask all your questions too, whether you've taken classes with them or not. Asking questions about how to apply and where to go, learning about how the application process and graduate education in general, is absolutely necessary for everyone, and doesn't make you look bad in any way. You can and should also do a bunch of reading online and on paper about it, but don't be ashamed to ask about anything you don't yet understand.
posted by RogerB at 10:45 AM on January 13, 2011

Good advice above. Email, sooner rather than later, ask if they would be willing to write for you, tell them the deadlines, remind them what classes in what semesters you took with them (so they can look up any files they have on your work as a refresher).

If you can say "I can forward you a paper that I wrote for your class if it would be helpful" that's great, but if you don't have the files anymore it's okay. They may ask you to write back explaining what specifically you want to study in grad school etc so they can tailor their recommendation to what you're saying in your application.

If it turns out that the prof who knows you well is an adjunct, he or she might say something like "look, I'm happy to write a letter for you, but you might have better success coming from a fulltime faculty member". If you get that response, thank them and listen to it. It's not a brush-off, it's good advice in some fields -- sometimes the prestige factor is really important, sometimes not, and you need advice from an insider to know. Another option to consider is whether you can include an extra letter of reference - some programs think this is fine, some don't, so find out which you're applying to.

And don't be shy about asking your former profs for advice about the application process, asking your favorite prof to look over your personal statement if s/he has time, advice about which programs are well-respected, if they know any scuttlebutt about the programs you're applying to, etc. They can say no if they're too busy, and in general profs want to help students succeed even after they've graduated. It is a normal part of their job to write reference letters and give advice about grad school applications. You are not imposing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:50 AM on January 13, 2011

Oh - another general pointer - the process and many other things vary a LOT between different types of grad school/fields of study. So if you end up asking more questions about grad school on AskMe or similar sites, it's a good idea to say what kind of grad school you're applying for -- the advice for applying for a masters in social work is very different from the advice for applying for a PhD in physics, for example. (This was not a problem with your current question. Just mentioning it in case you need to ask other questions later)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:55 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used chara's method, also sending a recent sample of my work because I was three years out. In your case I'd offer a copy of a paper you wrote for them and/or your best work from undergrad, even if it wasn't from their class.

Absolutely no need at all to be embarrassed.
posted by emkelley at 11:29 AM on January 13, 2011

I'd just add that it's a good idea to ask sooner rather than later. I'm a professor and I'd love it if all the students for whom I wrote letters of recommendation gave me 6 weeks notice. (Doesn't mean I'd do the letters any sooner but I'd feel more favorably disposed toward the student than if they emailed and needed the letter in 2 weeks.)

Asking by email is fine. I'd encourage you to ask the one or two professors you know best for advice about which programs you should be thinking about applying to and why. Try to send all your information (i.e. cv, transcript, work you did in the professor's class)/forms (though lots are online now)/deadlines, etc. at one time and enclose a list of the programs you're applying to, the deadlines, and whether the application forms are hard copies (in which case they're included in the packet you're sending) or will be emailed to the professor by the graduate program. Also, if there's something specific that you'd like the professor to focus on in the letter (your writing ability, lab experience, teaching potential), feel free to note that it would be great if that was something the prof felt comfortable addressing.

One last thing: it never hurts to send a thank you note (paper, not email) once you know that the letters have been sent. It's not a requirement but it's a nice thing to do. A good recommendation letter takes several hours to write and it's not uncommon for professors to have 8 or more of them to do. A thank you goes a long way.
posted by Wisco72 at 11:50 AM on January 13, 2011

i posted something very near this for my husband awhile ago. he only did it through email and is in grad school now!

posted by assasinatdbeauty at 11:56 AM on January 13, 2011 -
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 11:57 AM on January 13, 2011

Yeah, email is perfectly fine, as is the March 1 deadline.
posted by venividivici at 12:13 PM on January 13, 2011

I asked for references from my professor via email and got a very nice email back agreeing. I decided it was politer to do it via email because that way she could think about it before replying and it was less awkward if she didn't want to/couldn't do it. Telling someone no in person can be difficult.

So don't worry about not being able to do it in person. Just be polite in your email, and acknowledge that you're asking a big favour from a busy person, and it's not rude at all. Oh, and I'll nth asking as soon as possible.
posted by badmoonrising at 12:31 PM on January 13, 2011

Another benefit to email: sometimes one's professors can be a bit absent-minded. Email creates a paper trail of sorts, and creates an easy and appropriate means for you to follow up with them in a month or so, as opposed to asking in person and then wondering for the next six weeks if your professor forgot about you as your deadline rapidly approaches.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 2:56 PM on January 13, 2011

Ask by email ASAP.

What type of grad program are you applying to? That could make a big difference in terms of whether you should get the "higher ranked" professor, or the "lower ranked" one who knows you better, to write your last recommendation.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:02 PM on January 13, 2011

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