Letters of Recommendation

Whom do I ask?

  • Ask professors who know you and your work well.
  • Preferably these people will be professors in your discipline.
  • There are some fields in which a letter from a work or internship supervisor might be appropriate.

When do I ask?

  • Ideally two months before the recommendation is due.  Professors are busy people and often have multiple requests from students to write letters.  You want to give them sufficient lead time.
  • There are times when two month’s notice is not possible.  Still ask, but acknowledge that it is short notice and don’t take it personally if they can’t commit.
  • Plan to remind them again as the due date approaches.

What do I say?

  • Understand that you are not the first student to ever request a letter of recommendation.  While you want to be prepared and sound like you have somewhat of a clue, don’t fret unnecessarily about asking.
  • You want to find out if they can write you a STRONG letter of recommendation.  A lukewarm, generic letter of recommendation can damage your application.  It’s better to have a professor tell you now that he or she can’t write you a strong letter and you suffer a moment of embarrassment than it is to have them halfheartedly recommend you to the committee later on.
  • Ideally, make an appointment to meet with the recommender to talk about your graduate school plans, research plans, etc., and to fill them in on any personal information you might want them to include.  You’d be surprised how a 15-30 minute conversation can translate into a more detailed, comprehensive and positive recommendation.
  • Thank them for agreeing to write a letter.
  • Ask them if they want a reminder closer to the due date.  And if so, what format do they prefer (i.e., you call them, e-mail them, leave a note in their box, talk in person).  And if they don’t want a reminder, remind them gently anyway.

What information do I provide?

  • Program name, school name and deadlines.  You could compile this information in a table similar to the sample below.
Institution Program Website Due date Specific form Mail directly On-line Give to me
 U of Iowa Ph.D. American Studies www. Dec. 1 enclosed  yes yes
Notes
Marquette M.A. Family and Marriage Counseling www. Dec. 15 yes yes
Notes
  • Program information.  Printed information about each program (some faculty will read this and tailor your letter accordingly).  Be selective, as faculty do not have time to wade through irrelevant information.
  • Recommendation forms.  Many programs/colleges provide their own unique form that they expect the faculty to complete, usually along with a letter; others have no specific form and merely request a letter.  Make sure you complete the information you are responsible for before giving the form to your professor.  It is inconsiderate to make them fill out your name, the program to which you are applying, etc.  Many programs give the recommender the option of submitting the recommendation on-line and might even e-mail the professor to request a recommendation after your application has been completed.  A small but growing number of programs require that recommendations be submitted on-line.  If the graduate school gives you a choice, give your recommenders the same choice.
  • Addressed (double check the address for accuracy) and stamped envelopes for those letters that need to be mailed directly to the program.
  • Website info for recommendations that will be submitted electronically.
  • Envelopes (no stamp or address) for those letters to be returned to and mailed by you.  (NOTE:  If a professor hands you the envelope, look for a signature across the seal; if there isn’t one, ask for one as most schools require it.)
  • Resume/C.V.   If you do not have a resume or C.V., at least make a list of past and current employment, honors and awards, activities and organizational involvement, international travel experiences, GPA, etc.
  • Personal Statement.  If your statement hasn’t been drafted yet, at least jot down some notes about why you selected each program, why you choose your field of study, what your future goals are and any other pertinent personal information you think they should be aware of.  Sometimes it’s easier to have the recommender explain a low grade or personal circumstances than to explain them yourself.  Of course you both can and maybe should talk about it.  It’s helpful if recommenders point out that you are first-generation, low-income and/or underrepresented, a refugee, the sole bread winner in your family, etc.

PLACE ALL OF THE ABOVE IN A LARGE ENVELOPE so they don’t have to keep track of separate pieces of paper.  Put your name on the envelope.  It’s helpful to write the name of each school and the due date in marker on the outside of the envelope for quick reference.

How do I present the information?

  • Professionally:  neat and complete.  Naturally a professor is going to appreciate and have a positive affect towards you (which will come out in the letter) if your presentation is professional.  In other words, you are showing them that you have put time and effort into this and that you respect their time.

Should I waive my right to read the recommendation?

  • Yes.  Then letter writers feel free to say what they want to say.  If you are worried someone will say something bad about you, you probably shouldn’t have him/her as a recommender.  Some professors will hand you a copy of their letter—read it, feel good about yourself, and take it out from time to time when you question your ability.

How do I get the recommendations in on time?

  • Hound professors gently.  You might send an e-mail reminder a few weeks in advance and then a week before.  Some professors will do the letter right away, others will push the deadline.  It is your responsibility to make sure that the letters are received by the deadline.

How can I show gratitude to my recommenders?

  • Get accepted into graduate school.
  • Thank them formally (a card is nice).