Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A good letter takes time to write

How to ask for letters of recommendation

If a prestigious internship, a highly-selective scholarship, or graduate school is in your future,  please read this article carefully to ensure that you will get the best letter possible, given your talents and interests.  A great letter of recommendation requires that writers integrate what they know about you, your class performance, what the admissions and/or scholarship committee is asking for, and your goals.  This takes TIME.  Therefore:


Admissions readers look for evidence of the letter writer's familiarity with your work.  Without this type of evidence, the letter lacks credibility and force. 

  • If three letters of recommendation are requested, at least two should be from faculty members. 
  • When deciding on whom to ask, don't simply think of those classes or projects in which you have done well: think of those instructors or supervisors who are most familiar with your work and achievements.  

2.  TIMING.  

Writing a letter of recommendation requires considerable effort – and the more important the recommendation is to you (e.g., competitive internships, graduate school, etc.), the more effort it takes to write a good one.  Further, the first letter is the most difficult one to write (after that, the letter writer can “simply” revise the original letter). 

  • Give your writers a MINIMUM of 3 weeks to write your letter; and for graduate, law, or medical school, AT LEAST 6 WEEKS.  
  • Be sure to take into account foreseeable busy periods such as exam periods, Winter holidays, summer vacations, and “recommendation letter-writing season” (late October – December 1; January – March 15; late April-June 1).
  • Provided you have given your letter-writer plenty of time in the first place, you can send a friendly reminder regarding the impending deadline.  A quick email or phone call should do the trick -- but don't err on the side of pestering your letter writer.
  • A note on timing: it's never a bad idea to begin cultivating relationships with instructors early on in your academic career.  Participate in class discussions and visit your instructors during office hours to gain academic advice re: career plans.  If you have a genuine interest in their research, ask if there are ways you can be involved as a research assistant; if not, ask if they know of others doing other work who might need such assistance.


When asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, don't simply send an email.  It's to your advantage to ask the person face-to-face; not only does this allow you to clarify any doubts about the request, it automatically conveys to the recommendation writer just how important this letter is to you.


Many instructors and supervisors deal with dozens of recommendation requests every year.  Even if you are a stellar student or employee, they might not remember that smashingly astute comment you made on Kant's Categorical Imperative back in March, or the care with which you handled a knotty problem at work.

  • Bring an updated copy of your resume, a pared-down version of your personal statement, and/or a relevant writing sample (preferably one written for that particular instructor, and one which earned you a high grade or evaluation).
  • Explain your plans, even if they seem hazy to you at this point.


  • Ask if the writer would like to complete the recommendation online (this is becoming an increasingly common option) so that you can prepare your application accordingly.
  • If you are asking for multiple letters, it's a good idea to organize all the forms in one folder and include a cover sheet with a list of the schools for which you are requesting letters, and deadlines. 
  • Some applications require writers to return the letter to you in a sealed envelope.  Don't forget to ask the writer to sign across the flap of the envelope.


Federal Law grants you access to your letters of recommendation, but many applications include a form where you can waive your rights to read the letter.  We highly recommend that you waive your right to read the letter when given the option to do so.

  • Studies have shown that confidential letters carry far more weight with admissions readers.  In addition, letter of recommendation writers are far more comfortable writing a complete, candid letter when they know the applicant will not have access to the text.
  • If you fear that the letter writer might not do justice to your achievements or might include negative information -- that's a good sign you should not be asking that person for a letter of recommendation!


Always send your letter writer a thank-you note after you know the letter has been sent -- whether or not you have heard from the school.  Don't wait to long to do this: a week or two is a good timeline.  Of course, if you are eventually admitted to that coveted program or land that sought-after job, you might want to call up your letter writer to share your good news and thank him/her once again.  It never hurts to quietly share your success, especially with those who helped you to achieve it.