Request Letters of Recommendation

Professor Lee Park, Chemistry, has kindly agreed to allow us to include this handout on our website to give you some guidance when requesting letters of recommendation from faculty members. She would like you to be mindful, however, that others’ expectations may not be the same as hers.

It’s never too early to start thinking about letters of recommendation that you’ll need for summer jobs, med/grad school applications, study abroad applications, fellowships… Here are some things to keep in mind.

Before you actually need a letter:

  • Get to know your faculty – it’s very hard to write a letter for a student that I don’t know very well. Particularly in larger classes, if you don’t make a point of coming to see me during office hours or review sessions, I won’t know very much more about you than whatever your final grade turns out to be – and that’s not enough information to write a good letter. I need to know more about you, what your interests are, what kinds of things you’re involved with; don’t be shy! Invite me to your athletic matches, performances, or anything else that you’re involved in. I won’t be able to get to everything – I may not even be able to get to most things – but I’ll appreciate the invitation, and it really does help me to get to know you as more than just a face in a classroom.
  • Let me know as early as possible that you might be asking me for letters even if it’s still a few years off. If you’re planning on applying to med school, and you think you might want a letter from me based on a class you took in your first year for instance, it’s going to be harder for me if you approach me in your senior year, having not spoken to me in three years. It’s a good idea to let me know that you might someday need such a letter. This allows me to jot down some notes or even to write a draft of a letter while you’re fresh in my mind.

When you’re ready to apply for whatever positions you’re looking for:

    • Ask me directly, in person, rather than by email, whether I am willing to write you a letter/act as a reference. Never give out my name without letting me know that you’d like to list me as a reference – it never looks good to have a potential employer call me and discover that I have no idea that I’ve been listed as a reference or what it is you’re applying for.
    • Ask me what information I need from you – a transcript, a resume, a job description… I may want to see your project descriptions or application essays since I’m trying to tailor my recommendation to the position you’re trying to land. Also, it’s a good idea to remind me of all of the situations in which I might have worked with you. Sometimes there are students that I know from many different situations: I’ve had them in my classes, they’ve worked as graders, TAs, or tutors for other courses, they’ve tutored a high school student that I know, they’ve worked in my lab for some period of time, or I know them through non-chemistry-related situations (Spanish table, French table, a winter study course, an instrumentalist in a performancethat I’ve been involved in…). Given the number of students that I’m writing letters for and given that some of the interactions don’t involve direct day-to-day contact, it can be easy to forget something that might be a valuable addition to a recommendation letter.
    • Understand that you are asking for a favor, and that I may have to say “no.” This might be because I don’t have enough (or the right kind of) information to recommend you for the kind of position that you’re looking for, or because you have not given me enough time to get it done. Do not assume that the answer will always be “yes.” It takes much more time to write a recommendation than you may realize, and you’re not the only student who’ll be asking, so please be considerate.
    • When your applications deadlines get closer (e.g., it’s senior year and you’re actually ready to apply to grad schools), let me know what to expect – how many schools you you’ll be applying to and when the deadlines are. As much warning as possible is always appreciated. We all read email in the summer and many fellowship letters are due early in the fall – so don’t wait until you’re back on campus!
    • Be as organized as possible about your information.
      • Do not send me a list of websites, expecting me to dig out the information about how to submit a letter or when the deadlines are.
      • Provide me with an electronic file that has all of the information on all your programs, deadlines, format for letters, and how they should be submitted (e.g., hard copy vs electronic)
      • For hard copy letters, get all the forms, with clear instructions, deadlines, and postage (do not stick stamps to envelopes) for each form and turn them in to your faculty in a single packet if at all possible. You aren’t the only student needing letters, and handing me many random individual pieces of paper, post-it notes, and stamps increases the chance that something will get lost along the way.
      • Never put anything in my mailbox that doesn’t clearly have your name on it – other students are putting things in the same mailbox, and it’s easy to get things confused if they aren’t clearly labeled.
      • Please recognize that it’s easier to do all the letters for a given student at once. So though your deadlines may occur over several months, anything you can do to compress the window in which I have the information to submit our letters, the better. So for programs that require on-line submission, if you wait until the last minute to do your part, then I can’t get my part submitted until then, which makes things considerably harder.
    • It doesn’t hurt to remind me as deadlines are approaching (email is fine for this.)
    • If you decide not to apply to a given school/program, let me know. It’s really frustrating to have spent the weekend sending out letters of recommendation only to learn that a student decided not to apply after all.
    • Let me know how your application process/job search is going. I took the time to write your letters, and I’d like to know how it all came out.
    • THANK me (and all your recommenders) when it’s all over.

February 2011