Writing a letter of recommendation requires considerable effort. Don’t just blurt out a request to a supervisor or instructor you see walking down the hallway. Choose your letter writers carefully, and plan out your timing and approach. Most importantly, don’t procrastinate.
1. ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS YOU WELL
When deciding on whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, don’t simply think of those classes or projects in which you have done well: think of those instructors or supervisors who are most familiar with your work and achievements. Admissions readers look for evidence of the letter writer’s familiarity with your work. Without this type of evidence, the letter lacks credibility and force.
College and Graduate School Applicants: If you are applying to an academic program, it’s preferable to have letters of recommendation from upper-level course instructors. Remember that, although letters from senior professors are often more impressive than ones penned by teaching assistants, most senior faculty members receive large numbers of recommendation requests. Depending on the size of your college, senior professors sometimes must teach a wide variety of courses. As a result, they seldom come into close contact with undergraduates. While you might be tempted to request a letter from a tenured academic superstar, refrain from doing so unless you know the recommendation will be strong. An impressive signature will not compensate for a lukewarm letter; in that case, it’s much better to have a stellar letter from a junior faculty member of TA who knows you well and can comment on your specific abilities and achievements. Keep in mind that sometimes a professor will be willing to co-sign a letter written by a TA, or will simply adapt and then sign a letter written by a TA.
Business School, Professional School, and Job Applicants: When applying to business schools, professional schools, and jobs, you should ideally have a letter from your current employer. If you have not been at your current job for very long, you might instead ask a former employer who is familiar with your work and achievements. The same rule of thumb described above applies here: although you might feel tempted to request a letter from your company’s CEO, refrain from doing so unless that CEO is indeed knowledgeable about your accomplishments. Your direct supervisors will generally be far more familiar with your work history and style, drafting a far more effective letter.
2. ASK EARLY
College and Graduate School Applicants: Don’t wait until the last minute. Instructors are invariably flooded with recommendation requests at the end of the semester (as well as near application deadlines), and you don’t want your letter to end up just one more item in a long To Do list. Likewise, be sure to take into account foreseeable busy periods at work and common holidays such as end-of-the-year vacations.
If you approach your instructor a few months before the deadline, you will avoid putting him or her under undue pressure, and you give him/her plenty of time to ponder your performance. As the deadline approaches, you can always send the letter of recommendation writer a friendly reminder of the impending deadline. A quick email or phone call should do the trick — but don’t err on the side of pestering your letter writer.
A note on timing: it’s never a bad idea to begin cultivating relationships with key instructors early on in your academic career. Participate in class discussions, visit your instructors during office hours, and show an active interest in their research. Catching your instructor’s attention doesn’t necessarily make you a sycophant, and standing out among your peers might prove very useful later on when you actually request letters of recommendation.
Whether you are in high school, college, or graduate school, don’t wait until your last year to ask for letters. If you took a fascinating course your sophomore year and did particularly well in it, ask your professor for a letter at the end of the semester — even if you don’t plan on filling out applications until your senior year. Most professors (or rather, their secretaries and assistants) keep copies of letters filed or saved for future reference; if you show up two years hence requesting a recommendation, that professor will already have a written record of your accomplishments.
Business School, Professional School, and Job Applicants: Whereas academic letter writers usually have a great deal of practice writing letters of recommendation, company employees — even in the higher echelons — vary widely in their experiences with recommendations. This is one among many great reasons to get the process started as early as you can.
In addition, it’s a good idea to continuously build your recommendation portfolio. Ask your employer or supervisor to write you a letter whenever you leave a job, branch, or office (assuming you are leaving in good terms) where you have a made a considerable contribution to the firm. A copy of the letter will prove invaluable later on if you ever decide to go for an MBA or apply for a position that requires such a letter, and it will help your by-then former employer to remember your specific qualities and accomplishments.
3. ASK PERSONALLY
When asking someone to write you a letter of rec, don’t simply send an email or leave a voicemail message. It’s to your advantage to ask the person face-to-face; not only does this allow you to clarify any doubts about the request, it automatically conveys to the recommendation writer just how important this letter is to you.
4. VOLUNTEER INFORMATION ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR PLANS
About yourself. Many instructors and supervisors deal with dozens of recommendation requests every year. Even if you are a stellar student or employee, they might not remember that smashingly astute comment you made on Kant’s Categorical Imperative back in March, or the speed with which you smoothened loan negotiations during that Korea project. Along with the letter of recommendation form and materials (see below), include a vivid reminder of your past accomplishments, particularly those with which your instructor or supervisor is already familiar. You might include a resume, a pared-down version of your personal statement, and/or a relevant writing sample (preferably one written for that particular instructor, and one which earned you a high grade or evaluation).
About Your Plans. If you intend to study agronomy and your instructor is under the impression you are planning on pursuing astronomy, your admissions readers might end up with either a hysterical or quizzical letter of recommendation. Make sure that your letter of recommendation writer is aware of your plans, even if they seem hazy to you at this point. State your plans clearly: “Mr. Guzman, I am applying to Colby College.” “Prof. Leary, I am applying to the PhD program in biochemistry at the University of Iowa.” “Hank, I am applying to the Information Technology track of ISU’s MBA program.” Write down your plans somewhere; that way, Mr. Guzman, Prof. Leary, and Hank won’t get confused.
Again, handing in a concise outline or summary of your personal statement is not a bad idea, especially if you focus on your achievements in that instructor’s class or under his/her supervision. Also consider giving your instructor or supervisor a copy of your resume, which should remind him/her that you are an individual with both focus and broad interests.
5. PROVIDE THE LETTER WRITER WITH ALL THE NECESSARY MATERIALS
Most applications include specific forms for letter of recommendation writers. They often ask for both a written-out statement and a series of ranking or short questions. If you are asking your instructor for several versions of the letter — for instance, if you are applying to a number of schools — you might remind him/her that the statement need not be written directly on the sheet itself; it can simply be stapled to the form.
Always provide your letter of recommendation writer with stamped envelopes. If you are asking for multiple letters, it’s a good idea to organize all the forms in one folder and include a cover sheet with a list of the schools for which you are requesting letters. Remember to include envelopes of the appropriate size, and overestimate the value of stamps (remember that the instructor might attach extra pages to the form).
Some applications require the instructor to return the letter to you in a sealed envelope. Don’t forget to ask the writer to sign across the flap of the envelope.
Finally, you might consider providing the letter writer with a diskette for saving a copy of the letter. Chances are the letter writer saves these letters on his hard-drive anyway, but a new diskette might serve as a reminder of the importance of keeping a backfile. Letters, after all, have been lost in the mail before — not to mention in admissions offices, which are flooded with mail around each application deadline — and there’s always a chance you might have to ask for a second copy to be sent out.
6. WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO READ THE LETTER
Federal Law grants you access to your letters of recommendation, but many applications include a form where you can waive your rights to read the letter. We highly recommend that you waive your right to read the letter when given the option to do so. Waiving your right reassures the admissions readers that the instructor has written a candid letter — that is, without the bothersome pressure of knowing that you might read it one day. Studies have shown that confidential letters carry far more weight with admissions readers.
In addition, letter of recommendation writers are far more comfortable writing a complete, candid letter when they know the applicant will not have access to the text. If you fear that the letter writer might not do justice to your achievements or might include negative information — well, that’s a good sign you should not be asking that person for a letter of recommendation.
7. SEND A THANK-YOU NOTE
Always send your letter of recommendation writer a thank-you note after you know the letter has been sent out — whether or not you have heard from the school. Don’t wait to long to do this: a week or two is a good timeline. Of course, if you are eventually admitted to that coveted program or land that sought-after job, you might want to call up your letter writer to share your good news and thank him/her once again. Never hurts to quietly share your success, especially with those who helped you to achieve it.