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How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation

November 3, 2010

This time of year, many students are arranging for letters of recommendation to support their scholarship applications, and the same letters will again be needed for grad-school applications. This typically involves approaching two or three professors to ask for this favor. Various topics related to letters of recommendation are discussed in other articles that are posted on MyGraduateSchool.com, including one article in particular that I would strong recommend. It provides tips on how you can go about getting the most effective reference letters for grad school, but here I just want to talk about correct ways to solicit a letter. There is nothing complicated about asking someone for a letter of recommendation, but it takes a little bit of tact.

First, just send a short email to ask if he or she is willing to provide a letter. Don’t attach documents like your c.v., transcripts, or personal statement. That will come later, if you do in fact get a positive response to your request for a letter of recommendation.

Your initial email should simply explain that you will soon be applying to graduate school, and you hope they can provide a letter of recommendation for you. Indicate how many programs you are applying to and by which date the first one would be needed.

Timing is important. The right time to ask someone for a letter is about 4 or 5 weeks before you need it. That might seem like a long time, but it is customary to give professors a long time to do such things, and most will be at least a little annoyed if you ask for a letter of recommendation less than a week before you need it.

Remember, the first step only involves asking for the favor. Once you get a commitment, however, its important that you follow-up properly, which mainly involves providing the things they need to: 1) write a good letter, 2) get all copies out by the deadlines, and 3) get it all done with minimal hassle.

In another article, I cover some of the things you can do to improve the chances of a really good letter of recommendation. In a nut shell, it depends on how well, and in what capacity, the person writing the letter (i.e., the referee) knows you, but you might need to meet for a chat, or provide a copy of your personal statement, your c.v., or transcripts. Offer these things, but keep in mind that not everyone will use them. You also need to give your referees any forms and mailing envelopes. If possible, arrange to drop these things off, in person. Sometimes, a face-to-face meeting can leave a strong and positive impression that ends up being reflected in the letter of recommendation. Most importantly, however, the meeting simply gives your referees a chance to ask any questions they have. They may ask you some relevant questions about your graduate school or career plans, so be prepared to answer. Remember to thank them for their time and effort.

If it is not possible to meet in-person, for any reason, then provide all pertinent information in an email and attach any forms that are available in electronic format. Paper forms can be left for professors, as most will have an office and a mailbox, somewhere.

Make it easy for the person writing the letter. Put the addresses and deadlines of all the programs to which you are applying in a single document – if possible, on one page – and list them in the order in which the deadlines will come up. For each one, indicate whether or not there is an evaluation form to complete along with the letter. Also indicate what the referee is supposed to do once the letter is completed.

Take a look at this blog post by “thoughts on teaching” that addresses some of the special circumstances that you may have to consider when asking a referee for many letters of recommendation (5 or more).

Most programs still want the referee to either send the letter directly to the graduate school by regular mail, or else place it in a sealed and signed envelope for the student to include with the rest of the application materials. In the last few years, many graduate programs have started accepting letters of recommendation via email (verified with a digital signature), or else submitted on the program’s website. Don’t make your referee figure out what to do with each one of your letters – just tell them.

It is up to you to make sure the letters are submitted by the deadline. Send an email to your referees a few days before the deadline, just to confirm that the letters have been sent or will be ready on time. It’s not necessary to send more than one reminder, as long as you do it just a few days before the deadline. If you remind them too early, they are more likely to just put it off until another day, and perhaps end up forgetting altogether.

[ If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives, as well as my most recent posts. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what's really involved, and that's why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 18 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

The only thing you'll ever see advertised here is my book and e-book. My main objective with the blog is to provide most accurate and actionable information and advice. I don't get paid to do it, although if someone buys a copy of my book, or an e-book, I do make a few bucks. So far, however, that hasn't exactly been happening a lot. So, rest assured, I'm not doing this for the money! ]

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mischel permalink
    May 10, 2013 2:53 AM

    I have a question. I’m a student at a four-year university in California. I want to move to Washington and attend grad school there. However, costs being as they are, I want to live there a year, year and a half before applying so I can pay the resident prices. How late is too late to ask for a letter of recommendation? Can they write it early and I can save it? Most letters have to be submitted electronically online, am I able to submit the letters if I get them early? Thanks for the help.

    • May 14, 2013 7:32 AM

      You should ask for your letters of recommendation when the time comes that you actually need them. You are right that most letters are submitted online — but, those letters are submitted by the person writing the letter, not by the applicant. Keep in mind that the applicant does not see the letter, so for those programs that still take hard-copy letters sent through the regular mail, the letter is either sent by the referee, or it is given to the applicant in a sealed envelope (signed across the flap so it would be evident if the letter was opened before arriving), and the applicant sends the letters in the still unopened envelope, along with the rest of the application materials. While you’re still in California, pay a visit to those two or three professors you plan to ask for letters, and explain that you won’t need them for another year, or so. Let them know that you plan to ask for these letters next year after you’ve already moved to Washington. This heads-up is important. You want their verbal consent to provide a letter, so when you email them in a year, they are unlikely to refuse to provide one.
      The date on the letter must correspond to the current application cycle, so a letter dated last year already seems like it’s potentially out-of-date.

      – Dave

Trackbacks

  1. Letters of Recommendation for Grad School: Beware the Bad Letter-Writer « myGraduateSchool Blog
  2. Preparing a Successful Grad-School Application Takes A Lot More Time Than Most People Assume « myGraduateSchool Blog
  3. Improve your Graduate School Prospects with Relevant Experience « myGraduateSchool Blog
  4. When should you start preparing for graduate school? How about Right Now! « myGraduateSchool Blog

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