Asking for letters of recommendation by email?
August 17, 2012 1:32 AM   Subscribe

Thinking about applying to graduate school while living off-campus-- when and how to ask for letters?

I've seen a few questions that have addressed my separate concerns, but couldn't find one that addressed them in conjunction. Namely, I'm currently finishing my undergrad degree, graduating at the end of the summer. One professor graciously offered to write me a letter at the conclusion of her class one year ago. There are two other professors I would like to ask, for myriad reasons. However, I've permanently moved 1000 miles away from campus. One of the professors (my advisor) recently helped me complete my senior capstone project, and I'm at this moment writing him a (short) letter of gratitude for his help.

So my basic questions are:

1) Is it alright to ask for a letter by e-mail? (I'm thinking yes, if done properly.) Should I be short and sweet about it? Should I ask now, even though I won't be applying for another year?

2) Should I ask for a letter in the same email as the note of gratitude to my advisor? At first I assumed that would be tacky, but then I thought it might save him time and organization if I were direct about it now, while my project is still a fresh subject.

I know this kind of problem must be confronted all the time-- several of the grad students I know applied several years after their undergrad, so either they must have asked right away or contacted professors later by e-mail. I think I'm just sort of feeling out the right level of formality. Thank you!
posted by stoneandstar to Education (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would certainly recommend addressing your request sooner than later, since it's nearer to the times you interacted with the professors from whom you're requesting recommendation. Waiting a year gives them time to get distracted by other students, et al.

Email would be okay, but I might try giving them a call first, if there's a chance they're in-office now. Telephone is more personal, you can thank them for the experiences of their courses, and request a recommendation. Then mention that you'll follow-up via email (include your mailing address in it), for their convenience of either emailing or snail-mailing (signed) recommendations. Let them know that there's not a rush.

I think it's fine to request the same from your advisor within your thank you note. Something along the lines of: "I am so grateful for the time you took with me, guiding me through the journey of undergratuate study. Your guidance will stand me in good stead as I move onward to Graduate studies. I would greatly appreciate your recommendation, as I take that next step on my academic pathway." Then have the same bit about there being no rush, and close again with more gratitude. Taking that approach seems to work an awful lot of the time.

Best of luck, and congratulations on your upcoming graduation!
posted by 6 of 1 at 2:01 AM on August 17, 2012

I'm sure this is discipline-specific, but I'm a science academic and it's perfectly fine (and often, preferable) to ask for stuff like this via email. Profs in our department are usually hellishly busy, and email allows them to respond when they have a free moment, they don't particularly enjoy unsolicited phone calls.

I'd go the email route first, but include your phone number as well as an offer to call them whenever is convenient for them. Be sure to briefly note that you've now moved out of town, so they'll understand why you're contacting by email and won't mentally lump you with unprepared students who ask for letters from anyone and everyone.

I wouldn't be overly formal about your wording, as I don't think flowery language really gets you anywhere. Instead, do your best to remind the prof who you are, and explain why they would be a good reference for you. For the prof who was your advisor, presumably you have a good relationship and they're familiar with you, which should make that easy, and I think you can definitely include a request for a reference in the same email as your thanks.
posted by dnesan at 4:22 AM on August 17, 2012

True, dnesan, I came from a liberal arts background, and calling seems a better route with those folks. That said, pretty much all professors are busy. The fact that current/upcoming students will be emailing was also a reason for the phone suggestion.

Agreed, simple is best.
posted by 6 of 1 at 4:36 AM on August 17, 2012

When you say you won't be applying to graduate school for another year, do you mean you will be applying for fall 2013 admission? If so, application deadlines will run the gamut from November 2012 to February 2013. For the best chance at scholarships and financial aid your application has to be in early, and that might mean aiming for your applications to be in by December this year. Or are you applying for fall 2014 admission, in which case you wouldn't start working on the applications for another year?

If you are asking for recommendation letters now, I assume you have identified the graduate programs you will be applying to and can provide the letter writers (those professors who have agreed to write you a recommendation letter) this information. Depending on whether you are applying to master's or Ph.D. programs, the letter writers may also request to see a draft of your statement of purpose that is part of your graduate school application.

If you are asking now because you will be applying to graduate school in the future, but you're not sure where yet, don't do this. A short email informing them of your graduate school plans and that you would like to get a letter of recommendation from them in the future is fine (and of course thanking them for their guidance and great teaching and contribution to your intellectual development, etc.), but don't ask for recommendation letters until you can declare, "I am applying to schools X, Y, and Z, for M.A./Ph.D., to study some particular aspect of topic A."

Unless you come from a very small school, I do not recommend telephoning the professors. If a professor is known to never check his email, then you should probably call, but otherwise email is preferred, for the reason dnesan mentioned above.
posted by needled at 4:54 AM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't even call this a problem. Tons of people apply to grad school once they're several years out of college. It's better to ask sooner rather than later so you are fresh in your professors' minds, for sure. But some of us don't apply to schools on that type of schedule. In my case, I emailed a professor to ask him to write me a rec more than 3 years after I'd been in his class, and he said yes, and it seemed to be quite routine.
posted by mlle valentine at 4:58 AM on August 17, 2012

I would say wait to ask. You can mention it to them now, sure, but then follow up by email when you know where you're applying. Lots of profs - especially if they want you to do well - will try to tailor their letters a bit. (Or basically, what needled said.)
posted by SoftRain at 6:21 AM on August 17, 2012

Your questions are making me think you are not very familiar with the process of applying to graduate school. Some suggestions:

1. Contact your university's career services office for a consultation on applying to graduate school, or browse through their website for information and resources on the topic (for example, here's Northwestern University's Career Service's page on applying to grad school). This has the purpose of familiarizing you with the general process of applying to graduate school, so that you can ask more focused questions to your advisor.

2. Ask your advisor for guidance in applying to graduate school. It doesn't matter if you are off-campus or have graduated. This is part of their job. You can ask them for guidance on what schools or programs to apply to, given your interest in topic X, Y, or Z. You should also get them to review your statement of purpose, if possible the draft previous to the one to be sent out to your other letter writers.

3. Ask other faculty members you have had a good relationship with, and who are potential recommenders, to give you guidance on applying to graduate school. Again, you need to have identified your research interests before you contact faculty members.

The advice above assumes you are applying to academic graduate programs. If you are applying to professional programs like the MBA or JD, you have to seek application advice specific to those programs.
posted by needled at 9:46 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, needled. I actually don't have an advisor in my field, only for my final project, so I've been unsure of who to contact when I have middle-ground questions. I think I'll turn to my uni's career services to see what they have to say. I have identified several programs of interest, but I didn't think to ask faculty members for their assistance before asking for letters-- that will definitely help to bridge the gap and give me some much needed advice. Thanks, everyone!
posted by stoneandstar at 1:30 PM on August 17, 2012

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