Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Letters of Recommendation: Who to Ask, How to Ask, and What to Ask For

Each year, right around mid September, I receive a few emails from students asking for letters of recommendation. While I would like to help all of my past and present students, my answer isn’t always “yes.” Sometimes, I don’t know a student well enough to write a really strong recommendation. Sometimes, I receive a request just before a student’s deadline for applications, and I don’t have enough time to put something thoughtful together. Most of the time, I am able to honor a student’s request, but I almost always need more information so that I can write a letter that positions the student as an excellent candidate for graduate or professional study.

The above should offer some indication that acquiring a letter of recommendation is more complex than simply sending a quick email requesting one. Given that the process is more complicated, you might now be wondering how you’d go about getting a strong letter, so I’ve put together a list of quick tips that will help you navigate the process when it comes time for you to apply to graduate or professional school.

1) Plan to ask someone who can really say something about you. If you want a recommendation of substance, you’ll want your letter writer to know something about you -- like your interests, your academic strengths, and your interpersonal skills. It may not make a whole lot of sense for you to request a letter from a professor or an instructor who you didn’t interact with beyond a classroom lecture.

2) Once you’ve identified someone, send a polite note. Reconsider opening lines like “Hey” or “Sup” (as in “Sup Dr. Singh-Corcoran”). Choose instead a polite salutation (e.g. “Dear Dr. Singh-Corcoran:”).

3) Tell the recommender what programs you are applying for, your current areas of interest, and point to areas that you’d like your recommender to emphasize. All of this information will help your letter writer tailor her text. You want your recommender to address skills and abilities that will speak to your desired grad/professional program. For example, when a writing center tutor asks me for a letter, I usually focus on her interpersonal skills--especially if she is applying for a graduate teaching position. In my letter, I might address the degree to which the tutor can explain complicated concepts, engage in dialogue, ask thoughtful questions that advance knowledge, and the degree to which she is reflective of her own practices. These same skills and abilities often translate to good teaching.

4) Use paragraphs in the body of your email. Your email needs to be readable; a long chunk of text is difficult to digest. Consider using bullets or numbers if you want information to stand out.

5) Understand that they might say “no.” Don’t take it personally.
Even after you’ve completed steps 1-4, it’s possible that someone might refuse your request for a letter. People say no for many reasons. A faculty member or instructor might feel like they can’t speak well enough to your strengths (See tip #1). He or she might also be really busy and not have enough time. When someone doesn't write you a letter of rec, it does not mean they don’t like you, respect you, or think you aren’t capable of doing graduate-level work.

6) Give the recommender enough lead time.
It’s pretty standard to give a letter writer a one month deadline. Again, people need time to reflect, time to write thoughtful, meaningful, and thorough letters.

7) Tell your recommenders where they need to send your letters or how they need to submit them. Provide addresses if they need to send letters directly to programs. It’s common and considerate to provide postage. Provide weblinks and file format (e.g. PDF, Word, RTF) if they need to submit letters electronically. Make it easy on them.

8) List Due dates.
Let your recommenders know when your applications are due and/or when the letters are due. Sometimes the dates overlap; sometimes applications are due before letters.

9) Send gentle reminders after a reasonable time. It’s ok to send a quick note reminding your professors and instructors that due dates are approaching. Just remember to be reasonable and polite.

10) Send a thank you note. While not required, it’s certainly nice to receive a thank you note. A note is just one way to show your appreciation for the time and care someone took to write you a letter. It’s also a good way to start networking.

11) Share your success.
When the acceptance letters come pouring in, share the good news with your letter writers. They’ll be eager to hear from you!

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