How to ask for a letter of recommendation

from PhD comics.

Many people are shy to ask for (or about) letters of recommendations. Never be! As academics, it is part of our job to write references. In fact, it is an important part of our job. But You can make this experience as painless as possible for your letter writer. So, instead of wondering if it is OK to ask for 14 recommendations when you need 14 (and yes, it is OK), just do your best to help your letter writer. Here’s how.

First, think about who would be the best letter writer for you. If you had little to no contact outside of class with this person (and in class there is 20-30, or more people where you certainly were never noticed – maybe you even made sure of this) that person is not the best letter writer. I have written countless letters that say person took my big class (usually stats – could be worse, Scope and Methods), seemed engaged, got an A- (which is a very good grade, BTW), but if this is all that a letter says, that will not stand out. Unless you can’t (in which case you have clearly done something wrong) you should find someone who can write a better letter. I often tell people that I don’t think I am the best letter writer for them as all I can do for them is… well… see above. Usually they still want the letter. (OK. So these people all probably did something wrong along the way, as highlighted above, but it is fine, live and learn. Hopefully, in these cases, my job is only to complement some other letter writer who will write an awesome recommendation.)

So how can you make this easy for your letter writer. Well, look at it from their perspective. They don’t have much time. Here is the key information you need to briefly give them:

What position? Is it a PhD, internship, job, etc.?

Where? Such as University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Political Science

Few words about the position if applicable. eg. I would continue my research I am doing in my MA on voting behavior there or I plan to utilize my skills in focus groups with this NGO during their data collection on how people feel about XYZ policy. In this section, be brief and to the point! A sentence or two is fine. Focus not only on what you want to do but also how is this position a fit for you. OK, if it is PhD at Harvard, nobody will wonder why you would want to do that. But for less obvious things…)

Now I understand that it is easier for you to just send them the link which contains a detailed description and etc. but don’t do that. (Or, do that, but don’t make them peal all the info out of the link. Spoon feed it to your letter writer. Link is good, but only for reference. In fact, many other things are good for reference, CV, other letter writers, etc. But only for reference as an attachment or under your signature in the short email you will send to ask for this letter.

What should the letter writer highlight about you? Give them ideas what to write about. Be specific. If you think the final paper you wrote for their class (which they probably don’t remember so give them cues, tell them what grade you got) is relevant for the position, say so. If the class the person taught makes you a good fit, mention that as well. If your activity in the Political Behavior Research Group would look good in this letter, remind me that you are active in the group and I should mention this. (OK, some of these things the letter writer can figure out as well, but don’t make them think hard about these things. They probably do too much of that every day.)

VERY IMPORTANT. How to send the letter, where to send the letter and the deadline. And this can get difficult. Sometimes, the place you are applying makes you fill out a web form and they contact us letter writers with a link. (And these systems usually suck. Often, they don’t even tell us the deadline, so you need to do that.) Sometimes the reference needs to be emailed. Sometimes they require that the email comes from the institutional email address. Sometimes the form needs to be printed and mailed (less and less, but still). Sometimes, and this is not cool, but what can we do, the letter has to be sent directly to the applicant who includes it in their application. It is your job to make sure that your letter writer knows what they need to do. If there are forms (electronic or paper copy) make sure you read the form first and fill out all parts that is your job to fill out (like your full name and etc. be nice and fill out your letter writer’s name and contact as well – we usually use office contact for these things, though I, myself, use my personal phone which anyone who asks for a letter from me should know).

And again, the deadline. Give your letter writers time. If you cannot (then you messed up, though it may still be worth asking than foregoing an opportunity). Mark the email URGENT: in the title. Apologize for not allowing them enough time. Be understanding if they cannot submit, but ask them to do so even if it is late (most places will still consider it). Make sure the letter writer knows the deadline and send them reminders a week, 3 days, 2 days, and 1 day before the deadline. (Yes, all of those, unless they confirmed that it was sent.)

This is hard. This is especially hard if you consider that most of us, letter writers, receive many emails. To ensure you get a speedy response, your letter better not be more than a short paragraph, otherwise I surely will set it aside and deal with it later (which you don’t want me to do when there are deadlines involved). I understand the urge to be courteous and write a paragraph of a polite sounding big nothing, but don’t do that. Just be polite throughout your message. And being polite does not mean you cannot be assertive. For example, you can (and should) ask the letter writer to let you know once the letter has been submitted. (Electronic platforms also let you know sometimes, but you should not consider that enough. I have seen situations where the instructor submitted, letter was never received and … well, you know what happened.) You can also say you will remind them if you have not heard from them a week before the deadline. (And then remind them.) Despite this task being hard, don’t stress about it. You will make mistakes but if you follow only one of these points (not to mention the rest), you have already made your letter writer’s job much easier. So, you don’t check all these boxes, it is not the end of the world. Nobody will bite your head off, reject your request. But try.

And finally, there is no end to weirdness that letter requester can throw at you or your reference. In these situations, always, think about how you can efficiently and effectively communicate with your letter writer making their job as easy as possible under the circumstances.

And a post script. Some people will ask you to draft the letter for them yourself. Yes. This is a thing. And there is nothing weirder than writing a letter for yourself. But here are some tips if you run into this. Take the list of things you wanted the letter writer to highlight and write then up as if it was written by the prof. No need to overly praise yourself too much. The content is the praise and good letter writers know this. Also, rest assured, the letter writer will go through the letter, will edit the letter, adjust it to their style, add and delete comments as they see fit. (It is really more a collection of the points as suggested above and not a letter that will just be forwarded on, at least, most of the time.) I personally never do this with the exception of letters that seem to do little more than checking administrative boxes (in which case I always ask the requester to draft the letter). If you need such a letter from me, be ready to write it yourself (in fact, send it with the request).