Acceptable Lead Time for Grad School Rec Letters?
November 11, 2011 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Is it too late to ask for grad school recommendation letters due January 1?

After much indecision, I've decided that I'd like to apply to grad programs for next fall, and applications are due January 1. However, I'm quite worried that it would be rude and unreasonable to request recommendation letters in such a short turn around time.

I've been considering this the last several months and had pretty much decided to go for it last month, then found that my GRE scores had expired, and assumed I wouldn't have enough time to prep. However I've now realized that upon a closer look, the majority of the programs I am looking at merely "recommend" GRE scores (this would be for a public affairs degree, not academia), and it doesn't appear that omitting them would harm an otherwise strong application.

I'm 30 and this would be my second masters/new career, so I'm wincing at the thought of waiting another year to get started. I'm confident that everyone I'd ask would be happy to write me a letter, but also know that they are all busy people (especially academics this time of year), and I really don't want to offend them or appear disorganized. One thought I had is that I could offer to send them prepaid FexEx overnight envelopes so that the timeframe would be slightly expanded.

I'd love to hear opinions on whether this is a reasonable request, especially from people who often field similar requests for letters themselves. Thanks!
posted by susanvance to Education (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the person. I have an app due Dec 1 and just asked around the 15th of October, so you have a lead on me. If it's a Professor or someone who will be busy this time of year, get on it ASAP and make sure they know it's okay if they bow out in a timely fashion.

Many schools also accept LoR online now, so you don't even have to do the Fed Ex thing, although it's a nice gesture.
posted by GilloD at 9:52 AM on November 11, 2011

Is it too late to ask? But is it too late to expect everyone you want letters from to pull it off? Maybe. The folks you'll want letters from are at their most swamped right now, as for most academic disciplines not only is it grading-and-finals season but also the start of hiring season.

So you can ask, but 1) not everyone might say yes, and 2) even if they do, the letters you get might not be as good as if they had more time.

However, standard procedure for altogether too many letter writers is to forget all about those letter requests they got 2 months ago until about 3 days before the absolute, final, you-killed-my-schooling-chances deadline anyway, at which point they finally scribble something down after much cajoling. So there may be no practical difference whatsoever.

All in all, I'd say ask, but be ready to go ask others if you get turned down. It's worth a try!
posted by Rallon at 9:53 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you could check with the school, they might be fine with your recommendations arriving a bit later after your application. I found this to be the case for me, as I also decided to apply a little late.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 9:55 AM on November 11, 2011

No problem, though you'll likely have to factor in the holidays and encourage people to get them done early--by mid-Dec.. I usually recommend that my students give me a month. Six weeks is more than enough.

For the professors you're asking, make their lives easier, though, by providing them with all the information they need. Ask if they'll be able to write you a strong letter in this time frame. If they say yes, give them a packet with helpful info. The best packets I get from students who want a letter include the names and dates of the classes they took from me, copies of their final papers for those courses, their grade for the course, and a bullet point list of some things they'd like me to cover. That's all very helpful for me, but you may want to ask them what they'd like.
posted by BlooPen at 9:57 AM on November 11, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm a professor and I don't think you're too late. Students ask me for letters on a week's notice all the time, and I usually do it (although I'm annoyed to only have a week). Sending a Fed ex envelope is a good idea. Preparing a good packet like BlooPen suggests is an even better idea.
posted by medusa at 10:05 AM on November 11, 2011

Not too late. The "holidays" are coming up, though, so the sooner the better. Professors can decide on their own, but I was just asked to write a letter and turned it around in a few days.
posted by anya32 at 10:07 AM on November 11, 2011

I had some unfortunate circumstances that led to me asking for a letter of rec with about 10 days warning. I simply sent an email explaining why it was such a last minute request, and letting the professor know that I would completely understand if she was not able to provide me with a letter on such short notice.

There's no harm done by asking - just let your prospective letter-writer know that you would have preferred to ask earlier, and you understand if they don't have the time to write the letter.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2011

I would ask but let them in in your request that you realize it's a tight deadline, and have a couple of backup people to ask. In the packet of information BlooPen suggested, include your resume, a description of the program you're applying to, and any essays you've written for your application that might give them an idea of your goals in applying to this program. I like the idea of including a prepaid FedEx.

Another letter tip (from a fellow mid-career applier): When you respond to thank them for agreeing to write your letter, let them know you will follow up with them again before the deadline to see if they need any other information. That way, when you haven't heard from them, you can contact them without feeling like you're nagging.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be offended by the request, and I would be able to write a letter (hypothetically) in that time frame.

If you provided me with a copy of your resume, and maybe a list of things to remind me about you, and an addressed stamped envelope, that would be even better. Because honestly, I have trouble remembering things about students I had in a course last semester --- even really good students---much less from several years ago.

But January 1 is a long way away. (I hope! The end of the semester is barreling down like a bullet train.)

(IAAP also)
posted by leahwrenn at 10:20 AM on November 11, 2011

Nope. Do it today. Love the packet idea.

Also, write some thank you cards immediately after.
posted by jander03 at 10:22 AM on November 11, 2011

This actually doesn't sound like a tight deadline at all to me, especially if these are people you've ever asked for letters from in the past. Just ask, and be polite. You don't have to apologize profusely about the time-frame, because they've certainly seen worse, but mention that you appreciate their fast action. And I like leahwren's plan on telling them you'll check in before the deadline. I'd include in your note how excited you are that you're going to be able to do this application after all when you thought you couldn't, and say you wish you could have given them more time.

Do try to send them plenty of information, not just the data on the program, and your resume, but a good "cover letter" that connects all the dots:
"I'm asking you for a letter because you supervised me for X project, and I'm really pleased with the way that project came out will be mentioning our paper in my application. I feel like that project taught me a lot about (deadlines, X skills, managing other students, ...) and I really developed my (problem-solving, diagnosis, ...) abilities. The program I'm applying for is (info info info) and I am excited about (cool opportunities there). I'm accenting the (topics, skills) in my application, particularly how (past) relates to (program topic)."
posted by aimedwander at 10:27 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, wait, that wasn't leahwren, that was chickenmagazine. So many birds, so little time.
posted by aimedwander at 10:28 AM on November 11, 2011

It depends on the professor you're asking, I'd imagine. My boss has rec requests all the time, and while he loves doing things for his favourite former students, it can take him easily 3 months to get it done.
posted by elizardbits at 10:31 AM on November 11, 2011

You're not too late. A professor doesn't need two or more months to write a recommendation letter. It is the professor's job, and a job they're capable of doing. If you ask them now, they'll probably still put off writing it for weeks. It would make no sense to delay your plans for a year because you're reluctant to make the requests.
posted by John Cohen at 10:40 AM on November 11, 2011

I'm not your professor, but I am a professor. I wouldn't be put off today by a Jan. 1st deadline. If you send the request now, and follow up with the right kind of information: your resume, info on the program, a copy of your personal statement, and some discussion of your interest in the program, that would be for the best.
posted by .kobayashi. at 10:43 AM on November 11, 2011

You're fine. I've asked for recommendations with less warning time than this, when last-minute opportunities came up. Ask ASAP, though.
posted by pemberkins at 10:53 AM on November 11, 2011

I don't think its too late. I'm asking for letters of recommendation on Monday that are due December 1st. These are also from people I currently work with/for, though, so I think it depends on who you ask and what your relationship is with them, but I think you will be fine :)
posted by fuzzysoft at 10:57 AM on November 11, 2011

I only ask for two weeks notice, not including vacations. So if you were my student, as long as you were to ask by December 4 you'd be fine. YMMV.
posted by umbĂș at 12:12 PM on November 11, 2011

I am not your professor, but I was one. This timeline is fine, for me, based on how I work. It may not be fine for other people. You lose nothing by asking, though -- if it's a professor you trust to write a solid rec, it's probably someone you trust to tell you they can't do it without screwing you over, I'd hope. Give as much info as possible: when I was applying to PhD programs, I sent along a link to the program as well as my personal statement and included why I was applying. Good luck.
posted by sm1tten at 8:03 PM on November 11, 2011

I am a professor but IANYP. There is plenty of time. There is no need to apologize for the time. Seconding sm1tten about including as much info as possible.
posted by sesquipedalian at 4:30 AM on November 12, 2011

Yeah, professor here, and it would be ok with me if I liked you as a student and you asked nicely and sent me everything I needed. That means send your personal statement (in draft is fine, just one version), a paper or two you wrote for the recommender's classes, and a copy of your transcript and CV/resume, all in one email, containing clear instructions for submitting the rec.

And what Rallon said above is right. Remind me 3-4 days before the drop-dead deadline, politely, by email. That's when I will end up writing the letter anyway. Along with the 50 or so other letters due on the same deadline (I'm up to over 200 letters, for about 25 students -- most grad students applying for jobs or postdocs or grants, but also quite a few undergrads applying for grad programs --so far this fall, it gets worse every year.)
posted by spitbull at 5:36 AM on November 12, 2011

Also, are you *sure* the GRE is as optional as you think? I'm in a more academic field, but we absolutely require GRE scores.
posted by spitbull at 5:37 AM on November 12, 2011

« Older Home stereo amp: Tripath?   |   Next stop, rhabdo city? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.