Asking for a Letter of Recommendation: Who, How, When

A strong recommendation letter, from the right person, can weigh heavily in any application for a scholarship, or for admission to a graduate or professional program. It is worth thinking about what you can do to elicit the best one possible. 

Who: Read the application guidelines carefully. If a referee must hold a research grant, do not submit a reference letter from a teaching professor without a grant. If she is required to comment on your communication skills or research potential, do not ask the professor who taught your large introductory physics class to write you a letter, even if you got an A+ in the course. Instead, ask the professor who taught your upper-level Quantum Mechanics course, particularly if you participated a lot in class and also received a good grade.  An even better choice is the professor who supervised your fourth-year thesis project, and best of all is a professor you worked for as a summer research student. If you are allowed to submit a letter from a non-academic referee to attest to your leadership abilities, choose someone who knows you well and can speak to a broad range of qualities and skills.

How: If you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor you have not worked for, be clear about why you have asked him and make it easy for him to say yes or no. In an email request, include your name and student number, how he knows you (course, year), what you are applying for, why you require a letter, and the application deadline. Be polite and thank him for his consideration. If you ask for a letter from a professor you have worked for as a thesis or summer research student, she will likely agree to the request, but you should be respectful of her time. In a brief email, include the pertinent guidelines, highlighting qualities the committee is looking for, and the application deadline. Attach an up-to-date CV or résumé that includes relevant research or industrial experience, academic awards, published papers, conference presentations, and leadership roles for her reference. Find out where the letter should be sent and to whom, whether it can be sent electronically, or needs to be uploaded to a site, and whether a PIN is required, and make sure to include this information in your email request. 

When: As busy as you are, assume the person you ask to write a letter of recommendation is busier. Send email requests at least one month before the application deadline. If you are requesting letters for multiple applications, for example to graduate or professional programs, ask for all of them in the same email, clearly listing deadlines and destinations. A brief email reminder, one week in advance of the deadline, is also courteous (and often necessary).

As a final note, let the writer know how the process turned out – if you were successful, and even if you were not. Over the span of your career, you may only have a handful of people you can reliably count on to write you a good letter of recommendation. Make the process a pleasant one and let them know that you appreciate their effort.


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