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not exactly a spring semester study tip, but related: how to ask for a letter of recommendation

7 March 2012

More than a few of my colleagues who have been following the spring semester study tips series have asked that I write a post devoted to how you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation. These aren’t study tips, but they’re still useful.

  1. Long before you ask for letters of recommendation, you might know that you’ll need them in the future. Make it a point to develop relationships with at least five faculty members, all of whom are tenure-stream and four of whom teach in your major (these conditions can relax if you are applying to professional graduate programs rather than Ph.D. programs). Choose your classes wisely, consider opportunities to work as a research assistant, and identify when in your program you might be able to take directed/independent studies courses.
  2. When it comes time to needing a recommendation, make sure you’re asking the right person. Is this someone you have worked closely with (as a research assistant) or taken a few classes from (and done well)? Big names aren’t always winners as recommenders — and yet that doesn’t give you license to ask a bunch of graduate student teaching assistants for letters, either. (If you followed point 1, this part should be easy.) I am not like everyone else, but I only write letters for students whose applications I support. That means, I do not write bad letters. Instead, I will excuse myself from writing a letter for you and encourage you to ask someone else. <<< Again, I am not like everyone else. Choose wisely.
  3. Before you ask, you should have a draft of your application done so that you can give it to the professor. This helps us to write the letter by reminding us how great you are. Be prepared to give a dossier to the professor that includes your personal statement, a resume/CV, and details on how to submit the letter. For a guideline, see the form I give to students when they ask that I write a letter of recommendation (credit to Laura Seay, who wrote the original version of this that I modified).
  4. Ask well in advance if the professor will write the letter for you (I require 3 weeks notice, with rare exceptions). Once the professor says yes, give her/him the dossier in point 3 above, and/or follow whatever instructions s/he has for letter writing.
  5. After your applications are submitted. Write a brief thank you note (gifts are really unnecessary).
Finally, a last bit of advice. I know that applying to graduate school can be expensive, but consider the additional expense of using a letter service such as Interfolio (they receive one copy of a letter from your recommender and send it to the various places you are applying to, including online uploads). It may seem easy enough from your perspective that professors write a letter and upload it to a web site for each school you’re applying to, but as someone who wrote letters for only three students applying to an average of 10 Ph.D. programs this year, I can attest it is an incredible PITA. Different schools use different systems, almost all require that I fill out my contact details, and a few made it seem like it worked when it didn’t (and I later scrambled to get a letter re-uploaded). It’s for this reason that I love writing letters of recommendation for law school — I only write one letter and send it in one envelope and some magical place known as LSAC sends it to every law school my student has decided to apply to. If you are not applying to said magical LSAC place, work a few extra hours at the student store to pay for Interfolio or one of its competitors.

If you’d like to see what some others have had to say about this (so you can see the relative consistency), I recommend Chris Blattman’s post and Gary King’s page on letters of recommendation.

This post is somewhat related to a series of blog posts I’m writing this semester on studying in college.

  1. 8 January 2013 12:27 pm

    Having read this I thought it was rather informative.

    I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this short article
    together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time
    both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

  2. 8 April 2013 8:59 am

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added
    I get three e-mails with the same comment.

    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

    • 8 April 2013 9:06 am

      I don’t know how to do that (sorry!). And for some reason, this post is getting quite a bit of spam, which I keep deleting. Not sure how to fix it.


  1. Grad School Application: Letters of Recommendation | A Middle-Aged Student's Blog

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