How best to ask a former prof for a recommendation by email?
November 2, 2005 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I need to ask a former professor for a letter of recommendation for grad school. Because I live several hundred miles away, I can't ask in person. What is necessary for me to put in (and keep out) of my email to this professor to ensure that I am asking appropriately?

Additionally, it's been about two years since I've been in contact with this professor, and my future field of study is a bit different than what it was as an undergrad. I don't want to burden this professor, but I also don't want my request to come across as unconfident. Any ideas?
posted by robynal to Education (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a contact phone number for this professor? It's easier to go over everything with a phone call then to exchange e-mails back and forth with questions and answers. I write alot of recommendation letters for past and present employees (those going back to school etc...) and I always prefer to speak to them by phone so my questions are answered immediately rather than over a string of e-mails which may stretch the whole process out over several days.
posted by genefinder at 6:53 AM on November 2, 2005

I did this a couple of years ago, after being out of school for five years, and in a field completely unrelated to my undergrad degree- it really wasn't as big a deal as I thought. Writing letters of reccommendation all the time, it's really a big part of their job.

I would just send a thoughtful letter, thanking the professor for what you learned from them and updating them on your plans. If you know what schools you are applying to, it would certainly be helpful to include details on how they want to receive their letters (directly from the professor, from you, etc.) Also, it's probably a good idea to send along a paper or two you wrote for the professor so they have something to base the letter on, especially if you've been out of contact with them for a couple years. Good luck!
posted by hwickline at 6:58 AM on November 2, 2005

Well, assuming you're giving your prof plenty of time to write the letter, you don't need to agonize too much about the request -- it is, after all, part of his or her job. That said, it's obviously in your best interest to be courteous and tactful. Start off, of course, by being solicitous about the professor's health and well-being, say a little bit about your current situation, and then get straight to your request.

If I were you, I'd explain as precisely as possible my reasoning for choosing the grad school and program. Say a little bit about how it connects to your undergrad education as well as what you've been up to in the last couple of years that has led you to this new path.

Don't hesitate to be specific about what you want the prof to put in his or her letter. Say something like, "They're particularly interested in students who demonstrate excellent communication skills [or whatever], so anything that would contribute to that impression would be really helpful." You might even list the qualities you'd like him or her to emphasize. Include a resume that lists your academic accomplishments -- especially if you fear the professor might not remember the details of your academic career.

Give really specific instructions about how the professor is supposed to get the letter to the grad school you're applying to. If there are forms for him or her to fill out, let the prof know when and where you're sending them, and don't forget to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope! (I got in embarrassing trouble for forgetting this myself.)

Don't be alarmed if your professor replies by asking you to draft a copy of the recommendation letter yourself. And if you do have to do this, don't be modest.

So, to sum up: be polite (of course) and be incredibly specific. It'll go fine!
posted by miriam at 6:59 AM on November 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

You might want to remind the professor of who you are or specific things that would be relevant to the letter of recommendation. ("I took your Advanced Linear Frobnicating course in 1999, and wrote my final paper about Orca Whale Mating Simulation.")
posted by mbrubeck at 7:08 AM on November 2, 2005

IAAP, and have received a number of such requests. The main things I want to know are
a) Details about what you're applying for, and what you're telling those people. For efficiency's sake, this should be in your first letter ("I have attached my Statement of Purpose [or whatever]").
b) If I can't remember you from Adam, and am only going on what I can dig up about your grade and what you tell me now, are you absolutely depending on me? Do you have a backup plan? Will you be crushed if I say no, I don't remember you?
But (b) is best done by phone if the professor initiates such questions. Give a "Here's my phone #, or email me a time you'd like me to call you (and a number)."

Writing letters of recommendation all the time, it's really a big part of their job.

So true, and moreso every year. And it's not like our responsibility goes away for people who've left school. Thanks for the reminder -- I have two to write this week!
posted by Aknaton at 7:09 AM on November 2, 2005

All of the above and then some:

Make sure that you ask the professor if she can write you a good letter of recommendation. If she can't remember you and will just write something general, that's fine. But on the odd chance that you somehow misjudged your relationship, it's always best to give her an out. There's nothing worse than thinking you've got a good letter in your corner when in fact it's tepid/negative.

People don't like to say no to other people. But just because they'll agree to write on your behalf doesn't necessarily mean that what they write will actually help you. It's best to try, as much as you can, to control for this when you ask them initially.
posted by felix betachat at 7:18 AM on November 2, 2005

1. I suggest email first but offer to call the Prof. at his/her convenience to further discuss it.
2. [May not be possible]- Offer to mail the Prof copies of work you did for the class- papers, tests, etc.
3. Offer an updated resume/CV and your statement of purpose/application essay.
posted by cushie at 7:25 AM on November 2, 2005

Good question; I appreciate hearing a professor's perspective on this. I recently emailed a professor that I hadn't spoke to in 3 years, asking for a reference. This gives me some encouragement to email other notable prof's. She agreed, contingent on the job etc. Much to my chagrin, the first line of her 3 line email read "Allesklar, are you still smoking cigarettes?" Shucks ma'am, you know it.
posted by AllesKlar at 7:33 AM on November 2, 2005

This is all good advice. When I did this, I tried to make sure to
a) flatter hersincerely, since I was taking her time,
b) connect what I'm doing now to what we worked on together
(which ended up being a committee we sat on, as I wasn't really in her field any more)
c) describe what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it, and why I'm asking her. I talked a little about the other people I was asking, the strengths of my application, and where she fit in.

Finally, though, I gave a really specific out. You can simply say "Of course, I can imagine reasons why you might feel this isn't an appropriate letter to write. If that's the case, please just let me know."

Anyway, that seemed to work.
posted by metaculpa at 8:12 AM on November 2, 2005

Good advice all around, especially miriam. I'd only add (IAAP):

1. E-mail, don't call. As people have pointed out, writing letters is part of our job, and isn't a burden; but by and large, it's nicer to deal with recommendation letters when it's convenient to me (e.g. in my jammies late at night while going through my in-box,) not when it's convenient to you (e.g. when the phone rings in my office.)

2. Please prepare SASEs and fill out all forms, especially if you are applying to multiple schools. Better still, find out if your professor can submit the recommendation by e-mail.

3. Finally, I just want to say that you're absolutely right to want to avoid "coming across as unconfident." I once had a recommendation request in which the student apologized for asking me (the application wasn't really in my field) but explained they'd done quite poorly in all their other classes, so I was their best choice! Don't be that student.
posted by escabeche at 8:12 AM on November 2, 2005

Please don't ask who "herscincerely" is, or why she needed flattering.
posted by metaculpa at 8:12 AM on November 2, 2005

Yes, writing letters is part of our job as professors, it is not some big favor. And we are generally happy to do it--seeing former students go forth and do well is a huge part of our job satisfaction.

That said, if you want a good letter, make it as easy as possible. Email or call the professor with a heads-up, then follow up with a longer call later. In an email (so it doesn't get lost!) remind the professor of what classes or contacts you had with her or him, describe the program to which you are applying, and include a statement of what you think your qualifications are for the program. The last part should be all but ready to cut-and-paste into the recommendation. An updated CV is important too. I also do a phone interview with the student, basically looking for personal details and stories to put in the letter so it stands out from the usual generic bullshit.

Keep in mind too that many professors are disorganized and live in a culture where deadlines are commonly disregarded. Gently remind the professor two weeks before the letter is due, and again a week later. If there is a specific recommendation form the professor must use, send one, along with an addressed stamped envelope and a big post it note with the deadline on top. Have an extra set to resend when the professor loses the first ones.
posted by LarryC at 8:15 AM on November 2, 2005

Best answer: IAAP, but haven't been asked for after-the-fact recommendations yet (through the quirks of our program, I end up playing a minor role in everyone's degree instead of a major one in anyone's).

(1) Keep any flattery, thanking for past courses, etc, to the absolute minimum consistent with normal courtesy. Think New Yorkers here: we absolutely don't mind writing letters, it's part of the job, but DON'T WASTE OUR TIME in the process of asking. This might differ if you know your prof is emotionally fragile, or has an especially big ego.

(2) Email, don't call. As LarryC notes, we tend to be disorganized, and email means that we have a record of what you said. Leave a phone number, though.

(3) Take care of as much organization as possible yourself. That's where SASE's and the like come in.

What would I like to receive in such a request?

Dear Prof. Xenophobe,

I hope things are well with you. You might recall that I was in your [COURSES] in [YEARS], where I received [GRADES].

I'm currently applying to [SCHOOLS] in [SUBJECT] with the goal of obtaining a PhD and was hoping you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me. If you're willing, I'd be happy to send you the papers I wrote for your courses, my personal statement from the applications, and any other information that would be of use to you. I can be reached at [CONTACT].

Thank you for your time.

Yours, Ex-Student.

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:40 AM on November 2, 2005 [20 favorites]

Response by poster: Excellent advice all around...thanks in particular to ROU for sharing an example, it's much appreciated.
posted by robynal at 8:47 AM on November 2, 2005

Just chiming to say that Xenophobe's got it perfectly. My sister is a prof and gets requests for letters quite frequently, and this is exactly how she describes the ideal request -- polite (but not sycophantic or insincere), to-the-point, organized.
posted by scody at 9:43 AM on November 2, 2005

Try to remind the professor of what classes you had in which semesters. See if you can recall something important that they might remember. For example, I was in a professor's class the first semester he taught it. That helped jog his memory. Something like, "the first time you taught 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'"
posted by MrZero at 1:12 PM on November 2, 2005

Three other threads that cover some of the same ground: 1, 2, 3.

For a first approach, ROU's advice is spot-on. (obIAAP). Perhaps also offer copy of transcript. If a major, distinctive, well-received paper involved in the course, mention 'I wrote a 25 page paper for you on the Sociology of Nose Picking" (This is how I remember some students from years past is via their work more than their face or name, sadly enough)
posted by Rumple at 2:34 PM on November 2, 2005

Good advice here.

Remind him/her what course you did with them, when and give a CV CV CV CV CV CV! I have to write something about one of my 200 students, it's difficult for me to do so without a summary of what they've done in their life outside my course.
posted by lalochezia at 3:08 PM on November 2, 2005

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