Etiquette on Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School
June 6, 2005 10:18 PM   Subscribe

I am about to embark on grad school applications, but I'm not sure on how to go about asking for a letter of recommendation from a particular professor.

She was my writing instructor for advanced writing for which I received a surprising A for. I did not contact her after handing in the portfolio, but since I am going to go back to my home country in Asia for a brief vacation, I was wondering if it would be appropriate to bring her a gift as a reminder/token before I ask her for the said letter, or even concurrently if it's ok and not seem to brash.

That said, what kind of gift would be appropriate, if at all? Should I ask for the letter at the same time as gift-bearing, and if not, what's the correct "cooldown" time in between each action?

I am also interested in any tips and hints on addressing this topic with other professors and your personal experiences. Thank you very much!
posted by christin to Education (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have received gifts with and after letter of recommendation requests, and it always makes me uncomfortable. It is my job to provide letters for students if I can recommend them -- a gift is neither necessary nor entirely appropriate. It's a little close to bribery, even if you don't intend it that way. If you got an A, she will remember you. Just be polite, say thank you a lot, and if you get into a school that she writes a letter for, send her a grateful email. That's always nice.
posted by dness2 at 10:37 PM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A polite and sincere letter, phone call, or email thanking her for her support and influence and asking for her recommendation is appropriate. Once you obtain the letter, it's a nice gesture to send a SMALL gift (I had a loaf fresh bread sent from my hometown bakery) if you knew her fairly well and have an idea of what she'd like, or if you can find something nice but not overly grand or personal. I think a card mentioning her important role in your education and perhaps how a lesson she taught you will influence your future plans is the most meaningful way to say thank you.

On preview: As with job recommendations, it's nice to follow up with results if they're positive, and to thank the professor for her help.
posted by hamster at 10:44 PM on June 6, 2005

Best answer: Speaking as someone who has both solicited and been solicited for letters of recommendation:

definitely do not give a gift when you ask for the letter - it feels like an attempt at bribery. Most profs understand that writing these letters is a part of their job, and, honestly, they really don't take very long to write. A small gift -- after the letter is delivered -- is welcome but unnecessary. A sincere "thank you" in written, emailed, or even spoken form is plenty.

One thing that's always nice is hearing from a student who I've recommended after they get in wherever they've applied. I almost always ask them for this, but not all of them follow through. But I do think that, as an instructor, it's nice to hear that your recommendee has succeeded.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:59 PM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been on the giving and receiving end of grad schiools letters of rec. Just have an open, enthusiastic, straightforward conversation and ask for a letter. You're not imposing a burden--this is a great thing for a teacher to participate in.

In terms of a gift . . . save it for a gift (something given w/o expectation of anything in return) that you can give after letters are written as an acknowledgement of your thnaks, regardless of the outcomes.
posted by donovan at 11:07 PM on June 6, 2005

Best answer: I'm with dness2 -- I really don't like getting such gifts. You may not be surprised to hear that they have only come from Asians (actually, only Chinese, come to think of it, but now we're getting into small numbers). I regard such letter-writing as clearly a part of my job as a professor.

What is very much appreciated is to hear the results. "I got into that program, thanks again professor" / "Alas, no luck, thanks anyway professor". On preview: just as Dr. Wu says.

The other thing I really like when people do is to give me all the relevant information at once -- unofficial transcript, some reminder of what they did in my course and how well, what they're planning to include as a Statement of Purpose.
posted by Aknaton at 11:07 PM on June 6, 2005

Best answer: I've already had to write a couple of recommendation letters and have helped others with their grad school or fellowship applications. I never expected a gift or handwritten letters of thanks (although both would have been nice), but it really pisses me off not to hear from the person again. If I've invested time in their application I'd like to know how it's going as soon as they find out. As soon as I made progress on my applications, I always e-mailed or visited my recommenders or reviewers immediately.

Also I reviewed the application of one person who got into the same institution I am and he's just rude now. WTF?
posted by grouse at 1:48 AM on June 7, 2005

I would concur with all those who suggest that a gift would be inappropriate when you ask for the letter. A small gift with news of the results might be nice.
posted by OmieWise at 5:23 AM on June 7, 2005

Best answer: The gift part seems well covered. Here is some other advice that I've had from professors and administrators.

When asked a straightforward "can you write me a letter of recommendation?" most professors will say no if they don't feel they can recommend you, but some will say yes and write a bad letter. It's good to try to weed those out. Ask something along the lines of "Would you feel comfortable providing me with a positive letter of recommendation?"

If you haven't worked with the professor in the recent past, bring some of the assignments you did for them (or offer to provide them). Also provide a short synopsis of your achievements, activities, and interests. If there is anything that needs explaining in your transcript, let the professor know what the explanation is (for instance, my average went down one term when I was in the hospital with a collapsed lung... an explanation of this kind of thing from a professor carries more weight than claiming it yourself).
posted by carmen at 6:20 AM on June 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A small token gift after the letter has been written would be fine, though not necessary or expected.

For the professor to write you a good letter she or he will need to meet with you. Bring examples of your work from that class. The professor will ask you for information about your background, aspirations, and the program to which you are applying. A good letter does not just say "Suzie got an A in my class," it is a thumbnail portrait of you as a person and what you would add to the program.

If the professor does not ask to meet with you, it is highly unlikely they will write a very good letter. Ask someone else.
posted by LarryC at 10:38 AM on June 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A gift is not necessary and can be awkward, especially if given before or at the point of request. oddly, I have had the experience of Aknaton in that all such gifts I have recieved have been from Asians. A gift to a professor (loaves of bread always welcome) is best framed IMO as a thanks for the course or the mentorship, and not for any particular "service."

Writing such letters is, as noted, part of the professor's job. As suggested, supply ALL the relevant information at once - transcripts, writing samples, CV, experience, statement of intent, address to which letter is to be sent, program to which you are applying - everything. As Carmen says, anomalies are best explained by the professor if they have knowledge of them. Give at least two weeks for the letter to be sent. Many professors keep a miscellaneous file of tasks they take care of once a week or so. Writing a good letter can easily take the better part of an hour. I am not usually comfortable when the student asks "can you write me a positive letter" but I suppose it is smart. In Canada at least, many of these letters can be obtained via freedom of information requests and professors are - or should be - gunshy about writing negative letters. Unfortunately, inevitably, this means that damning with faint praise is the m.o. for a negative letter.

The best letters are ones in which the prof clearly knows the student and can vouch for them in detail surpassing even their academic achievements. Since there is a big difference between undergrad and grad modes of learning, often these less tangible items carry a lot of weight - is the student punctual, diligent, motivated etc?
posted by Rumple at 12:21 PM on June 7, 2005

wow, it never would have occurred to me to give a prof a gift when asking for a letter of recommendation. And I expect to become a professor myself in a few years, and would not want a gift given to me either. It just seems inappropriate... I was once sent a small present from a student (teaching as an adjunct) after the course was over and even though it was a nice thought, it still seemed a little weird to me.

You should heed the advice about making sure you can actually get a good letter from the person in question, though. If they really don't like you, they'll turn you down, but if they just think you're okay, they will probably expect that everyone just thinks you're okay, and agree to write a letter, but it'll be half-hearted, and that will look bad for your application. It's worth thinking carefully about a)your relationship with each professor b)the disposition/ enthusiasm of the professor in general c)the reputation of the professor.
posted by mdn at 1:57 PM on June 7, 2005

Best answer: You may not be surprised to hear that they have only come from Asians

I'm not. One of the first things I learned teaching in Taiwan was that you're expected to give gifts on all sorts of occasions like this -- the art of guanxi ("GWAHN-shee") is highly developed: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Nobody would have the reaction of embarrassment that's common in America (and in this thread). It's just another cultural divide. But yeah, don't do it. Send a follow-up thank-you letter and let her know the outcome. And good luck!
posted by languagehat at 2:59 PM on June 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A gift would be inappropriate, especially before you ask for the letter. But an appreciative letter after the fact would be nice. Let her know how it went.

You might find this thread helpful.

And carmen had some good tips re: actually asking for it.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 3:42 PM on June 7, 2005

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