I might have to ask my grandmother.
February 24, 2012 4:25 PM   Subscribe

A professor I worked with last year just informed me that he cannot write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school because I didn't take a class with him. This is reasonable, but how do I respond? Also, what other professors could I ask to write a recommendation?

I worked with this professor in my senior year as a peer adviser. I had sent him an email two days ago asking for a letter of recommendation for graduate school, and he just sent a [really kind] message back stating that he would be willing to write the letter, but history programs are specifically looking for letters from professors that can adequately evaluate your academic performance. This makes a lot of sense to me, but how do I respond to this? I would really like to send him some sort of email thanking him. I want to write something along the lines of just "thank you" but I don't know how to do so without sounding angry or rude [i.e.: "thanks so much for your consideration"].

My other issue is that I am now struggling to find another professor who can write this recommendation for me. There were a lot of instructors who could give me a strong review based on academic performance, but I'm not quite sure if asking for these recommendations and/or including them in my application would be appropriate. So my additional questions are:

1. I would like to ask another professor- who happens to be the first Professor's wife- for a recommendation. I took a history class with her ["Immigration + Ethnic issues"] and did pretty well, and I believe that she could provide we might a really strong letter of recommendation. How should I phrase this email?

2. Can I ask a professor I had in community college? I did take four history courses with the same professor [earning all A's] and two courses with another [again, all A's]. I did talk to these professors extensively during/outside of class and I had some pretty memorable papers. These, unfortunately, were all 100 and 200 level classes. They were also either American history or general world history classes.

3. Or, can I ask professors from other disciplines? I know subjects like chemistry are probably out of the question, but would a recommendation from an Art History or Creative writing/English professor help my application?

The caveat here is that I'm quite limited in the professors I can ask, but I need three recommendations. At my transfer college, I took the vast majority of my history courses with the same professor due to my concentration [Russian History]. I've already asked this professor and another professor [who taught historiography] for recommendations. I did take a WWI course, but I only got a "B" in it. I also took an African History course where I received an "A" and an American revolution course where I earned a "B+", but I definitely didn't stand out in the class and I really doubt the professor remembers me.

Thanks so much!
posted by oxfordcomma to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1) The first professor's professor wife sounds like she'd be a great idea, but you shouldn't be asking directly in an email. Send her, and the other professors you want to ask, emails asking to set up an appointment to discuss your plans for graduate school. This way you can ask in person, giving you a gauge of their enthusiasm, and they have a heads up that you'll ask ahead of time. Make sure you mention when you meet in person that you did work for the first professor and that he might have good input.

2) If you don't have other good options, sure. I would only consider it if you know absolutely that they will be strongly written letters.

3) What is their academic rank? If they are in a strong position career wise and can write you a strong letter I suspect it won't be bad.

In evaluating a letter of recommendation, one of the qualifications is how much it looks like the applicant fished for letters from professors that liked them. Logically, the lower the academic rank and the less relevant the professor is, the larger the pool of professors the applicant had to choose from.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:43 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

how do I respond to this?

I think a simple "ah I see, thank you" would suffice. If you wish, you could ask to visit this professor in office hours and get his general advice on the grad school application process, since he seems to be pretty well informed about it.

1. I would like to ask another professor . . . How should I phrase this email?

Uh, more or less the same way you phrased the email to the first professor? "Dear Professor [Name], I am applying for grad school in [subject] and I wonder if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation. I enjoyed your course on Immigration and Ethnic Issues and I want to further explore [half-sentence summary of your personal statement]."

2. Can I ask a professor I had in community college?

Yes, but due to the unfortunate reality of academic snobbery towards community colleges, I would not recommend that you have more than one of your recommenders be from your community college.

3. Or, can I ask professors from other disciplines?

Yes. Explain that you are applying in another discipline and ask them to write about their evaluation of your skills in writing, reasoning, and analysis. Again, I wouldn't suggest that you use an out-of-discipline professor for more than one out of your three letters.

I also took an African History course where I received an "A" and an American revolution course where I earned a "B+", but I definitely didn't stand out in the class and I really doubt the professor remembers me.

This may or may not be the case. I think especially in the course where you got an A, it may be worthwhile to send an email asking the professor if they feel they know your work well enough to write a recommendation. When I was teaching university courses I had a few quiet students who "didn't stand out in the class" but wrote outstanding papers. I would have been happy to recommend them.
posted by Orinda at 4:45 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh! I definitely should have mentioned I now live about 350 miles from the school :/ I graduated last May and I'm currently enrolled in a law program [but I'm dropping out due to lack of interest.]
posted by oxfordcomma at 4:49 PM on February 24, 2012

If it were me, and I applied to business school over 20 years ago, I would have the declining professor write a character recommendation in addition to the 3 other ones. Nobody wants an asshat in their program and having a professor vouch that you are not only not an asshat but are a fine young person cannot hurt. I would also ask his wife, separately, for a rec. Since you are 350 miles away, I would either call or set up an appointment via email to come in in person then I would take a day or two and drive to school and sit down with them face to face. It will solidify their belief in you and you can gauge their sentiments much better in person than via email. I would also include the rec from the community college professor. I would add a note to my file why I picked that professor and talk about history being your first love and why you are going back to it and dropping law school and how this professor first instilled a love for history with his engaging style or some other crap like that.

Applications ask for very specific things, but I always viewed that list as a minimum and would include anything extra that can help the committee understand why you are an excellent candidate. I think you need to bull up your ethusiasm for history and this program in particular in light of the fact you are dropping from law school. You do not want them thinking you are just trying another program to see if it is for you (even if that is the case). You want them to think you think you made a grave mistake following a financial path of law school and what you really were born to do was study and teach history.

But, remember, I am an old guy thinking like I did when I got into a top 5 business school with an undergraduate gpa of 2.41.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:07 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Send professor #1 an email reply that says "Thank you for that clarifying advice and for your time. I will contact the appropriate professors per your recommendation. Have a great term!"
posted by DarlingBri at 5:32 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Graduate programs such as in history are very different from professional programs such as the MBA, so a character recommendation won't do you much good, and it might even be regarded as odd by the admissions committee. Separate notes such as JohnnyGunn mentions are not done, either.

I would turn to the community college professors as a last resort, after first trying your possibilities at the college from which you graduated. When asking, phrase your question in terms such as "Can you write me a strong letter of recommendation?" or "Would you be comfortable writing me a letter of recommendation for graduate school?" This allows professors a graceful out, while you get letters from professors who can actually write good, positive letters.

You should definitely ask the professors for African History - similar to Orinda, as an instructor I definitely noticed students who turned in good work.
posted by needled at 5:48 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

English prof here. I would definitely seek out anyone who gave you an A; that's the sort of thing we remember. However, if you didn't talk a lot, I'd suggest hunting up any papers/exams you did for the course, so that the professor has something specific to reference.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:38 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I consider it reasonable for ex-students to ask me directly, by email, for a letter of recommendation (assuming they were students I knew well). I actually find it mildly annoying when they want to schmooze first, but endearing when they give me more information than I actually need in order to identify them. The most important thing is that they give me plenty of lead-time before the deadline. So go ahead and just ask.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:39 PM on February 24, 2012

I would ask the professor from option A, the wife who taught the Immigration and Ethnic issues.

I would ask either in person, by email, or by telephone (if your department lists telephone numbers). The bonus for talking in real time- you could get a response before she talked to her spouse about it. It's just a small thing, but nobody likes to be a second choice.

(But I disagree that it's necessary to do this in person- that sounds very frustrating for you if it's several hours' drive, and in a way, is asking for even more time than it would take to write a letter). I think it's much better to just prepare a packet with graded, original papers and comments from that class.

As for the community college professor, I would definitely ask. I would ask both the professor from your new school and the CC professor. That way you have four letters. This is never a bad thing.
posted by kettleoffish at 6:53 PM on February 24, 2012

You're overthinking the emails to the professors. To the first professor who is not going to write a recommendation for you, thank him for the response, thank him for explaining how the system works, tell him you will be seeking out a professor who taught you directly.

It's fine to ask his wife for a recommendation. Treat them like any two unrelated professors; it's irrelevant that they are married for these purposes.

(And, I've had positive responses when requesting recommendation letters via email; I usually send a first email with a brief explanation of the program and a request. The first email says that if they are willing to write the letter, I will send them a resume, writing sample, and anything else they need. I also offer to meet in person - you would say chat via telephone).
posted by insectosaurus at 10:40 PM on February 24, 2012

Seconding what insectosaurus said. Thank the first prof. for his candor, because what he says is true. I did graduate admissions for my program for several years, and we were looking for letters that addressed an applicant's potential for doing well in graduate courses.

Ask his wife; after all, you took a course with her and did well in it. If she agrees, send her a draft of your statement of purpose, and possibly copies of some of the work you did in her class.

BTW, at the risk of thread-jacking, let me append my standard advice on statements of purpose. They should do three or four things: (1) State what you want to study in grad school, as specifically as possible without making it seem like you've jumped the gun and already chosen a thesis topic. "Economic and social history of late nineteenth-century Russia, especially the industrialization of St. Petersburg" would be fine. At the MA level (if that's where you're applying) you can be more general, but at the very least, "nineteenth-century Russian social history" is much better than just "Russian history." (2) Explain how your undergraduate background has prepared you to pursue those interests at a graduate level. (3) Explain why the program to which you're applying seems to be a good place to pursue your interests--faculty who teach in your area, resources available such as library collections, etc. (4) If necessary, address any potential problems in your background, such as poor grades one semester, and any weaknesses you might need to remedy: for example, if your Russian isn't up to working with primary sources, you should explain your plans for improving it to the point where you can use it as a research language.

A statement of purpose should not talk about how much you love history and have always loved history since your grandmother told you wonderful stories about life in the Olden Times. If you're applying to grad school in history, the admissions committee is going to presume that you like history. They want to be able to assess your potential for becoming a professional historian, which is not at all the same thing. You don't apply to Juilliard because you love classical music, but because you want to become a musician; grad school in history is the same, mutatis mutandis.

If you can send your recommenders a statement of purpose that does all of those three or four things I mentioned, they will be able to write a much more useful letter than if you just ask them for a recommendation for grad school.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:50 AM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Writing letters of recommendation is a standard part of a professor's job, yes, even for students who have been out of school for a little while. Don't sweat it. Be polite, for sure, but also don't feel like you're making a horrible intrusion.

As needled says, you want letters from history professors if you are applying to history grad programs who can write about how good you are at history. The grad programs don't want letters saying that you're a hard worker or have wide-ranging interests or other general things like that. They want to hear about your papers for history classes, period.

Letters from community college history profs are ok, but I agree they should be a last resort, because the prestige of the institution on the letterhead will influence how much the letters help you.

Did you have an undergrad history advisor? Or a professor you worked with most in history? You should get in touch with that person and ask them to help you with the application process. Again, this is part of their job, not a crazy intrusion, so don't feel abashed. You'll want someone to be able to read over your writing sample (that's assuming the process for history is like the process for philosophy, where the writing sample matters a hell of a lot, and it's the kind of thing where you will want to revise and polish something just for this purpose), and help you with questions on all aspects of the process.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:33 PM on February 25, 2012

So, from your question it sounds like you already have two rec's, and you just need to decide on a third. I would definitely ask your prof from the Immigration class. You can just ask her as you asked the others. (And it's excellent advice to have copies of your work for her class to send, and a copy of your statement of purpose or at least a short paragraph describing what subjects you want to focus on in grad school.)

If your community college prof will have some specific great anecdote to include (eg if you wrote a paper that was published with him, or you helped him with a museum exhibit) then you could maybe include his letter as a fourth.

Don't get letters from other fields unless you are absolutely desperate. The exception would be if, for example, you want to study 19th century Russian social history, and one of your classes in another field was related to that -- if you took a class comparing Russian novels and French novels, or whatever. A professor for such a class could explain that you've had this drive to learn about Russian novels of the 19th century, and you wrote a great paper connecting one to its social history, or whatever. But in general, letters from other fields aren't relevant.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:43 PM on February 25, 2012

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