Recommendation Letter Requests

If you would like to ask a faculty member to write a letter of recommendation for you, here are some suggestions about who/how to ask:

  1. Does this person have a reason to have a positive impression of you? (For instance, this may translate into: Did you take a course from this person and do well? Or maybe you worked on an independent project with her/him and did well?  Were you a TA or SI for a course that she/he was teaching?)
  2. Is the person familiar with your work? (For instance, this may translate into: Does this person know what your senior research project was about, or given a good summary, could they say something intelligent about it?)
  3. Is this letter going to be relevant to your application? (For instance, this may translate into: Does having a letter from your mathematics instructor help you with your application for a congressional internship in Washington DC?  Would a a letter from this person help your application to get a part time job at the Natural History museum? Note that your answer to these questions may be yes or no depending on what you want the letter to be about).
  4. Once you have decided who to ask, be intentional about how you ask.  In particular, do not ask in the minutes before or after class; make an appointment to chat in person, or send an email request that is courteous, professional, and informative.  Make sure to remind the letter-writer of your full name, exactly how they know you, what you are applying for, why it is important to you, and what is the time frame for the earliest deadlines.  If you have less than two weeks before your deadline, be aware that you are asking a considerable favor.
  5. Follow up any recommendations written with a professional email or note, thanking the person for writing for you.   Follow up again when you hear whether or not you received the position/honor/award.

Your letter-writer will need handy access to key information for even a basic recommendation.  They will ask you to send them an email containing the following:

  • an unofficial copy of your transcript,
  • a copy of your personal statement (or other written responses to application questions) to better understand your personal goals for the application,
  • all necessary forms, with due dates clearly indicated, and instructions for submitting electronically, or pre-addressed envelopes.
  • On your recommendation forms, please look for and check the box that says “I waive my right to read this letter.”  If there’s no such box, include a statement in your email that you are waiving access.  If this is an issue for you, please do let your letter-writer know so that you can talk about it.

Furthermore, additional personal information will help the letter-writer prepare the best letter possible.  At least two weeks before the first letter is due, e-mail your letter-writer your answers to the following questions (the more details the better).  Answer all the questions, even if you know that the faculty member knows the answers.

  1. What is your name, year, and major?
  2. For what are you applying (e.g., scholarship, graduate school, summer research experience)? List the programs to which you are applying, together with due dates.
  3. How long have I known you (years and months), and what is my relationship to you (instructor, research advisor, etc.)?
  4. For what classes have I had you (include semester/year), what final grades did I assign you, and how did you distinguish yourself in my classes?
  5. How would you describe yourself? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
  6. What are some of your academic and nonacademic accomplishments?
  7. What makes me particularly qualified to write a letter for you?
  8. What makes you particularly qualified for this position/honor/award?
  9. What are your long term goals and will this position/honor/award help? If so, how?
  10. Additional comments (REU’s, summer research, interesting jobs, hobbies, etc.)?

Lastly, send polite reminders as deadlines approach (especially 2 weeks prior and 2 business days prior), send a thank you letter or email, and follow up with the person about whether or not your application was successful.  It never hurts to tell the faculty member in writing how their class(es) helped you land the position/award!


This page inspired by Michael Orrison’s article and Gizem Karaali’s similar page.