Requesting Letters of Recommendation

By Readingintheborderlands

Part of my job as a professor is writing letters of recommendation for students and former students who are looking for work or who are applying to doctoral programs. I get a lot of these requests, and generally I’m happy to write the letters. However, some students seem unfamiliar with the professional etiquette and practical aspects surrounding letters of recommendation.

As someone requesting a letter of recommendation, you have a few responsibilities:

  • Ask the right person. It needs to be someone you have a good professional relationship with and someone who can be positive about your qualities for the job/program that you are applying to. It’s usually best to ask someone that you’ve had several courses with or who has known you over several years, though I realize that’s not always possible.
  • Some applications now ask for recommender information then contact the recommender through an online system or a phone call. DO NOT give out a professor’s name, address or email for a recommendation unless you have already asked if they would be willing to do one.
  • Ask someone you think will actually write the letter. Unfortunately, some professors will enthusiastically agree to do a recommendation, then never follow through.  It’s unprofessional, but happens.
  • Request the letter of recommendation AT LEAST two weeks before it is due. Your letter is only one of dozens of tasks the professor needs to complete, so give plenty of time for the professor to fit in into their schedule.
  • Once the professor has agreed to write the letter, send them an email with the following information: a short description of the position/program that you are applying to, an updated resume/vita, the name and address of who the letter should be sent to, and a reminder of the deadline. You also might want to remind the professor of that brilliant class project you completed or other achievements related to whatever you are applying to. A pre-addressed envelope is always nice, too.
  • Follow up with the professor as the deadline approaches. This isn’t rude or presumptuous—it’s practical. Professors forget things. Also, ask the professor to inform you when they’ve sent off the letter.
  • Say thank you!

Finally, most professors really appreciate it when you let them know if you’ve been accepted or rejected from whatever you’re applying for.

As a professor I also have some responsibilities in this process. These include:

  • Only agreeing to do a recommendation if I feel I can write a positive letter.  If I don’t have good things to say about the student, I tell the student they need to ask someone else.
  • Meeting the deadline.

Follow these steps and you should get enthusiastic recommendation letters!

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