Letters of Recommendation

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When, Who, and How.

Letters of recommendation are often one of the most dreaded parts of the graduate school application.

Here is what you need to know...

 

When to ask.

First, as professors, we know that writing letters of recommendation is a part of our job. I know that some professors dislike writing letters, but honestly, they are not that hard to do, and most of all we want our students to get into great graduate programs. So, if you are feeling hesitant about asking your professor for a letter, it is understandable, but try not to let it get in your way. Ask early and ask often -- you will not be the first, and you will not be the last to ask that prof for a letter.

If you are earlier in the process, and are just thinking about grad school, now is the time to think about who you are going to ask for letters of recommendation. Talk to your professors, develop relationships with supervisors … and most of all, take on projects. The more initiative you take now, the stronger the letters will be for you (not to mention the experience that you will gain).

 

Who To Ask.

Which professor/supervisor should you ask? This is easier than you might think. Ask the professor or supervisor who knows your work the best. Often people wonder - should I ask this well-known professor who doesn’t really know me (but I did well in their class), or should I ask a less well-known professor who knows me well. If it is a choice between these two - go with the latter. The professor or supervisor who knows your work can write a specific and detailed letter about you - rather than a cut and paste, ‘student-X-did-well-in-my-course’ snooze-fest.

 

How to ask. 

Believe it or not, this is actually more complicated than you might think. Don’t just ask, “will you write a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school.” Be specific: “I very much enjoyed your course on X, and would love a letter of recommendation from you. Would you be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation for graduate school in Y (subject area)?” And then listen carefully to the response. If you get a vague, or hesitant response here, then definitely move on to another letter writer. You do not want a tepid letter of recommendation in your graduate application file.

Once you have your letter writers all set, make it easy on them:

  • Present your letter writers with a checklist and deadlines for when the letters are due

  • Most letter writers will do the letters all in one batch, so decide where you are applying and get the list to them all at once (rather than sending them information piecemeal)

  • Ideally, send the online links at one time as well (rather than spread out over several days/weeks)

  • Give your letter writers something to write about - prepare you CV (curriculum vitae) well in advance. Also summarize what projects you worked on, and how you were involved with them. Remember: they may be think very highly of you, but could easily forget a project or a role that you had in a class or research project.  

 

What if it has been a long time since I took that class/worked with that supervisor?

Honestly, you are not alone. Maybe half to two-thirds of my letters of recommendation are from students that I worked with years ago. Don’t sweat it - just ask. In this case it is even more crucial that you provide the letter writer with information about what you did.

What if you don’t know any professors/supervisors very well, and you are nearing your graduate application deadline?

Set a meeting with them now - go to their office hours, talk about your research/graduate school plans and ask for their advice. There is no time like the present! Finally, offer to provide writing samples or examples of your work - anything that can highlight you as a unique applicant.