Part of my job as a professor is to write letters of recommendation for students. I’m happy to do it, too. However, to make the process effective for both of us, there’s some information I’d like you to be aware of.
A letter of recommendation that says “Sally took my course in X and got a grade of Y” is not a powerful letter. For most things that you apply for (jobs, internships, scholarships), you will send a transcript, so the selection committee reading your application will know what grade you got in different classes. You want a letter that can say more.
Most selection committees want to know something about your character from someone who knows you well. Some of the things they might be interested in include:
If you and I have not had a working relationship where I might know some of those things about you, I can probably only write the “she took my course X and got a grade of Y” letter. If that’s the case, you might want to think about whether there’s a better person to ask.
How might I know those things? Ideally, you and I had a one-on-one working relationship, say for an independent study or a research project. You might have visited me in office hours so that I got to know you more as an individual. You might have distinguished yourself in class or lab by the questions you asked or comments you made.
Sometimes, you need a letter of recommendation and there’s no one better to ask, in which case I’m happy to write you the letter I can, even if it’s the not-so-strong one. Everyone has to start somewhere.
The process works best if you do the following:
Ask me early enough.
A few weeks is usually sufficient, but the earlier the better. Sometimes this is impossible, due to late-breaking information, but in that case, I sometimes cannot squeeze in the time.
Tell me what they’re looking for or what you’d like to emphasize.
If they’re worried about intellectual curiosity, tell me that. If you’d like to emphasize your research aptitude, tell me that.
Provide me with useful information for the letter.
Even if I know you well, my memory may fail me. Remind me of interactions we’ve had and experiences that may illustrate the qualities you’d like me to bring out in the letter. For example, if you’d like to emphasize your leadership ability, remind me of the time that you volunteered to convene a panel discussion on some topic.
Now is not the time to be modest!
Provide me with accomplishments or skills that you’d like my letter to mention. If for some reason I don’t feel qualified to talk about some of them, I’ll leave those out. It can’t hurt you to mention them to me. Remember, I’m on your side.
A resume or transcript can occasionally be helpful, but that’s really
more raw material that I can read over for stuff to talk about.
It’s even better if you can draw my attention to particular items on your resume or transcript that I might be able to speak to.
Tell me the deadline for each letter, as well as the address.
If electronic submission is possible, please let me know that, too.
Yes, I can read the web site or application materials as well as you can, but the easier you make this for me to do, the more reliable I will be.
You do not need to provide me with stamped envelopes, but thanks anyhow.
The College provides me letterhead stationery and envelopes, and it pays for postage, so neither of us should pay for postage.
Whenever possible, I prefer to send my letter directly to the selection committee, rather than giving it to you.
I know that sometimes that’s not possible, but when it is an available choice, I prefer it.
Also, I prefer to write letters where you have waived your right to see it.
I don’t intend to write letters where I have negative things to say, but I think the letter is taken more seriously when the selection committee knows that you are not reading it as well.
As happy as I am to write letters of recommendation, they take time, which is always a scarce resource. I will feel awful if I miss your deadline, but you will feel worse. A friend of mine from grad school missed an outstanding job opportunity because his thesis advisor forgot to send a letter of recommendation. Don’t let that happen to you! So, nag:
Naturally, it’s not pleasant to nag, but with a little effort you can do it kindly and politely, particularly since I’ve asked you to nag me. A simple email saying something like.
Hi Professor Jadud, I just wanted to remind you that the letter of recommendation to MIT is due next Friday. The letter can be sent electronically as a PDF to email@example.com. Thanks!
You really need to stay on top of your recommenders. While I aspire to have letters done in advance and submitted early, the reality is that I often have many letters of recommendation that I’m working on during “the season,” and that is work I do on top of my normal teaching and research load. If you care about your recommendation, then you need to stay on top of it from start to finish. I am human, and I have lost track of recommendations in the past: sometimes with no negative consequences, but once it meant a lost opportunity for the student.
Notice the list of things that selection committees are usually interested in finding out about. Arrange your college career to build up a portfolio of professors, supervisors and mentors who can speak to those qualities, whether that is with me or anyone else. Try to create one-on-one relationships where someone can get to know you and your work well.
If you have built such a relationship, and you know that person would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation, but you don’t have a current need, it might be smart to ask them to write you a letter anyhow. They can either keep it themselves or send a copy to the Center for Work and Service, which will keep generic letters on file. I’m happy to keep such a letter myself. Then, if, say, you decide to go to law school two years after graduation, you can email me and ask me to write you a letter. I can then re-work that letter relatively easily to target law school, since most of the hard work will have been done earlier.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
This article was originally written by Scott Anderson, faculty at Wellesley College. It is licensed BY-NC-SA, meaning that it can be copied and distributed freely, as long as attribution is maintained, it is not used for commercial purposes, and the copies (modified or no) are shared under a similar license. I have done so here, and have also begun tracking my changes to the document.