Whom should I ask for letters of recommendation?
February 18, 2015 2:25 AM   Subscribe

I am applying for a summer program with NASA and need two letters of recommendation: one from an academic source, the other from a previous employer or mentor. All of my options are not great. Whom should I ask? Descriptions inside.

I graduated with my bachelors degree in December of 2012, so I feel like any potential professors I could have asked will probably have forgotten me - plus I was never a particularly memorable student. I am currently enrolled in an online postbacc certificate in GIS, and since it's online, the professor doesn't really know me. So here are my sad options:


Candidate A: The instructor who taught the Intro to GIS class I took last summer at the community college. I feel like he may or may not remember me now, but he definitely knew who I was while I was taking the class and he gave me a high grade on my final project. I worked really hard in the class. Problem: I emailed him two weeks ago asking if he would be a reference for another internship I was applying to, and he never got back to me. I don't know if he checks his academic email address, and I don't know his personal email. I feel awkward emailing him at that address again asking for a letter of rec for a different thing.

Candidate B: The professor who served as my mentor for my senior thesis (in 2012) and whom I took some online classes from. He may or may not remember me - I don't think he was ever super impressed with me or my thesis as I rushed the project and it wasn't very well done. However, he'd at least have something to go off of.

Candidate C: The professor who coordinated senior theses for the honors college I was in and some of whose "fun" classes I took. He would probably remember me but possibly not well enough to write a letter attesting to my abilities.

I can't think of any other professors who could write letters attesting to the factors the program requests of references (teamwork, critical thinking skills, etc.) It's just been too long.


Candidate A: The scientist who supervised me in my internship I did at the beginning of 2014. She is always quick to give me a good reference and I'm sure would be willing to do it, but I've applied for a ton of jobs/internships lately and I know she's been called a lot. I feel really bad asking her to write me a letter when she's already helped me out so much.

Candidate B: The team lead at my most recent "real" job (quit in early 2014). Similar to above - she's served as a reference for me and has even written me a letter of recommendation before (if the program didn't need the letter to come directly from the writer, I'd just send that) - but I feel like I'm wearing out my welcome and she takes a while to return emails.

Candidate C: The attorney who supervised me at my legal job/internship a few years ago. She liked me a lot and would write me a good letter but retired and kind of fell off the face of the earth. I know how to get in touch with her, but it's been a long time since I've talked to her.

So if you've made it this far - I have a few more reasonable options for professional letters, but I really am limited when it comes to the academic ones. And overall I just feel so bad asking people who have already had to serve as a reference for me a lot to keep helping me out. I also feel like they must think I'm a major flake since they've gotten called as references for a broad variety of positions.

Advice? Much appreciated!!
posted by majesty_snowbird to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd go with option C for academic. Honors is good, and you can send the professor an email that includes copies of work you did for them and reminders about classes you took together. You can also send a resume/CV and a few paragraphs about what you've been doing and what your goals are and how much professor C meant to you and why you think prof C can write a good rec. Professor C will probably still have records of grades, if not attendance and comments you made in class, and that's enough to go on for 2012. For bonus points, drop off a quick voice mail before sending the email or go to office hours and catch up if you're still in town. There's no shame in putting together supportive materials, and I always like to see old students and hear how they're doing.

I don't like any of your professional candidate options, because if you're going to go for an older professor rec then I want you to have a letter from someone that knows you in the now. If you decide you're limited to these three, then go with professional candidate A. It's a little unclear to me - she's only answered calls but not written a letter? A letter takes a little while to write but once it's done, it's done, and it's relatively quick and easy to retool it for each opportunity that comes up. I don't know about professional but in academic, writing letters is part of our job and we expect students to need multiple letters. Especially just out of college, we expect new jobs, programs, and grad school applications. On the other hand, if you're getting the feeling that you're being a pain, you might consider other options. Have you asked her if you've outstayed your welcome?

Good luck with the application. Letters can feel intimidating to ask for but they're really truly just part of the job.
posted by arabelladragon at 3:53 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Never feel bad about asking for a letter. Once you've written for someone, the additional effort of updating and sending another is minimal (especially now that you don't have to send physical letters on letterhead!), and it's just part of the job, honestly.

A community college instructor is not as good a choice as a professor at a 4-year college or university, and someone who either had you in class or worked with you extensively is better than someone who cannot address all your academic strengths. You'd be surprised who remembers you. When you ask for the letter, send a sample of your work you did for them (maybe something other than your thesis, if you still have something on your hard drive) and your résumé/cv to jog their memory.

Some programs will accept an extra letter of rec; if they will let you, I'd send the CC instructor's letter in addition to the other two.
posted by BrashTech at 4:04 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Write the recommendation letters yourself and send them as drafts for the person to use (along with a nice email). Not uncommon at all.
posted by Gotanda at 4:06 AM on February 18, 2015

When I applied for grad school I went with roughly your academic Candidate B. When I emailed him I made sure to be very specific about why I thought he (specifically) would be able to write a good recommendation. Supply them with good examples of what you did like "I thought my thesis really highlighted my ability to do X" or "I think that from my work with you I made it clear that I excel at/enjoy/really improved on Y." If the professors you contact are honest (I'll admit, this is a pretty big "if") and don't agree with your assessment, they're so busy that they will probably just say no. If you have one agree to do the recommendation I've found that most professors are amazing at selling the positives in people and you'll be fine either way.

Really any of your professional ones are good. It's up to candidate A & B as to whether or not they want to recommend you more. I bet B is using some variation of the same letter for each recommendation, so it's probably not as much work as it seems. I'd probably lean toward A, since she just seems more interested in general. Why don't you call A and ask if they're comfortable doing more?
posted by Krop Tor at 4:07 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

When reading your post, I couldn't help but wonder whether your view that your profs won't remember you is accurate, or the product of self-esteem issues. In particular, I can't imagine a mentor for your senior thesis from 2012 not remembering you at all! I'd think that would be the best choice of your academic references.

My mom was a teacher, first of high school science and then of Anatomy & Physiology at the local college. Whenever I was out with her, it was sort of a running joke that she'd *always* run into former students, no matter where we went or how briefly she was out and about. It was extremely rare for her not to be able to recall her former students. She might need a moment to remember the year she had them, or a last name, but she clearly remembered at least 90%+ of these folks, even from decades ago.

Maybe you weren't the most stellar student your profs ever had, but they probably noted something good about you.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 4:18 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd shot gun this thing and ask everyone. When you ask, send some identifying info:

I took the class in Blah, I got grade Foo, and I did my paper/project on Bah.

I took numerous film and English classes with an undergrad professor. I volunteered at the public television station where he taped his film show. He looms large in my educational life. About 4 years after graduation I needed a recommendation for grad school, so I asked him for one. The letter began:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to recommend Ms. Bunny. She took numerous classes with me and earned an A in each class. I don't remember her specifically, but she must be a good student

So...you never know.

Don't worry too much about being remembered. If you did well in the classes, you'll get a recommendation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:37 AM on February 18, 2015

I write references a lot. It's much easier to write a reference for someone when I've already done it! All I do is go into the same letter and change a few words then re-PDF it.

Why don't you contact the community college about your former instructor? He might not even work there anymore and they might have a phone number or other contact information at which you could try to reach him more directly.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:38 AM on February 18, 2015

Candidate C: The professor who coordinated senior theses for the honors college I was in and some of whose "fun" classes I took. He would probably remember me but possibly not well enough to write a letter attesting to my abilities.
It's fine if your prof doesn't remember you well enough to write a good letter. You can help him! If you're able to meet with him in his office hours, do that, because it will jog his memory. Ask him what you can send him that will help him write for you: would he like a copy of your senior thesis or of any work that you did in his class? Offer to send him any essays that you're writing for the application.

This is a common situation, and profs are able to deal with it. You just need to give them some stuff to go on, so they're not relying solely on memory.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:39 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you turn in your work on time in your current classes? Do you earn decent grades? Do you participate in the discussion boards if there are any? Has your overall feedback from current prof been positive?

Part of my appointment is for an online program, and online students need rec letters too. It's never been a problem. I talk about whether they get work in on time, participate in the class, get good grades, seem interested in the subject matter, act like they're culturally competent, get along with their classmates, etc. You'd be surprised how well you can get to know an online student, especially if you've had the same prof for multiple classes. Do I only know their public, online school face? Sure, but I only know my students' public faces in face-to-face classes too. I've written more what I call 'axe murderer' letters for face to face students than online students. ("You really should ask someone who knows you better..." "No, no, I don't have anyone else..." "Well, okay." And I produce a letter that says in adademicese that as far I know, Stu isn't an axe murderer, because it's all I got on them.) Plus, if you can manage an online class, you're probably okay at project management, which internships want to know.

Which is by long way of saying, ask current professor. :) The worst that they say is no, in which case you're back to the other options (out of those, go C and send him a current CV, why you're interested in the internship, professional goals, etc. Send the same package to current prof if they say yes. Please don't be the student who, when I said "send me anything at all that will make you look better and stand out on paper" said "I love to learn about different cultures, and love to study about different customs in different countries." Everyone who wants to study abroad says that!)
posted by joycehealy at 6:11 AM on February 18, 2015

On the academic side, I will say that I get asked to write plenty of letters, often years after the fact, and often from students I don't remember well. It's just part of the deal -- people often do need academic recommendations quite a while after they've graduated, and they may not have a perfect/amazing option of who to ask. (And honestly, I have had hundreds of students, so even some pretty darn good students won't get remembered perfectly!) When I get these type of requests, I am able to write a better letter if:

-- you give me as much information as possible. This includes: your work from the class(es) you took with the professor, a current writing sample, your transcript, your CV or resume, and documents related to the specific application (i.e. if you have a personal statement that you're submitting to NASA, make sure to send it to the recommender as well).
-- you are on the ball/on top of things. Remember that getting into this program is a huge deal to you, while writing the letter is probably low-ish on the priority list for the person writing it. So be prompt in replying to emails and supplying requested materials, and in following up with reminders. And for heaven's sake please very carefully proofread everything you send.
-- you can provide evidence of specific items listed in the application. For example, you mentioned that the application asked letter writers to comment on teamwork abilities. For most professors, that's going to be a tough one unless they personally supervised you as part of a research team or something like that. But, if you can put together a short document for them highlighting that, for example, you planned X event for Y student group as part of a team of 5 students, and speak to how this improved your teamwork skills, then the professor will have a bit more to go on. Sort of a mini-teamwork-resume with whatever items you think speak to that ability in your past/present.
-- you are willing/available to talk either in person or on Skype. I find this gives me the best ability to actually remember someone, as well as the chance to get a feel for them and add a personal touch to the letter. If you are in the area and available to do so, offering to take them out to coffee or stop by their office hours can be a good choice and shows initiative.

You MAY be asked to draft a letter for the person to work off of. I would NOT send this unsolicited, as some people like this practice and others don't. I do not ask students to do this, and would find it pretty presumptuous if it turned up in my inbox unrequested. On the other hand, plenty of profs make this request as a matter of course. So, wait and see what's asked of you, and maybe have something ready, but don't send it without a specific request.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:56 AM on February 18, 2015

Response by poster: Follow-up question: how would I start an e-mail to professor C requesting the letter? Not sure how to not make it awkward. "Hi, it's been two years, letter please!"
posted by majesty_snowbird at 12:04 PM on February 18, 2015

For your follow up, I'd say direct and to the point:

Dear Professor C,

I was a student of yours in (give context of classes/honors/etc.) in 2013, and graduated from (university) in 2014. I'm currently applying to a summer program at NASA, and am hoping you would be willing and able to write me a letter of recommendation. I've attached my resume and personal statement to this email, and am happy to send along any other materials that may be helpful. (Optional, if you are local and work schedule allows: If you are in town this semester, I'd also be happy to stop by your office hours to catch you up on my life since graduation.)

Thanks so much for your time,

posted by rainbowbrite at 2:01 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

p.s. It won't seem awkward to the professor, students ask for this sort of thing all the time! :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:02 PM on February 18, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I think I'll ask candidate C academic-wise. I just remembered he's not actually a professor but rather is an instructor; however, he was the main writing teacher and general advisor for the honors college and we had a pretty congenial relationship - I took about 4 writing classes from him.

I'm going to go with candidate A for the professional one - I've told her recently I felt bad to keep asking her for references but she said it was fine, so I will just hope she was sincere!
posted by majesty_snowbird at 3:17 PM on February 18, 2015

« Older Health insurance question   |   Notice - Landlord to tenant on a periodic tenancy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.