Every year, particularly in the late fall or early spring semesters, I get asked to write letters of recommendations by students. These letters are for a variety of opportunities. Some of the opportunities are for on-campus jobs (like an RA) or for scholarships; others are for REUs, graduate school, or even jobs.

Most of the students who request that I write a letter do so very respectfully and with gratitude. But, often, this is a brand new process for the asker. As a consequence, details are often overlooked.

I have decided to share some tips to those who may be asking someone to write a letter of recommendation.

Who Are You Asking?

When asking for a letter of rec, you should think about who you’re going to ask. How well the writer knows you is a clear indicator of what s/he can say about you. If, as a senior, you ask a professor that you had as a first-year student, then you may be setting yourself up for either declination or a vague letter (unless something truly remarkable happened).

Unless early in your collegiate career, those you choose to ask should probably be teachers from major and minor coursework. An undergraduate research advisor and your academic advisor are excellent choices. (If you didn’t include your academic advisor as a letter-writer, that could be a signal that something is amiss to letter readers.)

Finally, you should recognize that those with whom you are not strangers will write the best letters. Strangers can’t do that. Relationships at the instructor-student level take time to cultivate.

Plan before Asking

If the opportunity is special enough to require a letter of recommendation of any form, then I recommend that you plan ahead before you ask. A few common pieces of information that any letter writer would love to have on hand are these:

  1. Who are you and why would you like for the writer to write this letter?
  2. What is the name of the program to which you are applying?
  3. Is there a list of topics/qualities the writer must discuss in his/her letter?
  4. What is the deadline for when the writer must submit the letter?
  5. Where must your writer send the content? Is it to an address or via a website?
  6. What information does my writer need to know about me? (Advice: Share a CV/resume.)

These all seem so rudimentary (and maybe even redundant) but it makes the task of the letter-writer much easier. Supplying this information removes any frustration about the process from the writing of the letter (this is a good thing).

Ask in Person

It’s amazing how much this makes a difference to me. I’m not turned off by people asking in other ways (phone calls or emails) but the personal touch is impressive.

Rather than ask across an email, visit during office hours or set an appointment. Share specifically what you’re hoping I’ll do and share the deadlines to make sure I can honor that commitment.

Finally, share some gratitude. Many of us take pride in our letters; writing them is not a quick and easy task. The task becomes especially daunting if the student is one we feel deserves an especially good letter.

Conclusion

If the opportunity for which you require a letter is really important enough, do it the right way. Ask in person and come prepared with information. Doing these things will make the difference to your letter-writers which will be reflected in your letter.

Letters of Recommendation, Part I (To: Students)

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