How to Request a Letter of Recommendation

A number of students ask me for letters of recommendation for graduate school, internships and job opportunities. I’m always happy to perform this task and I enjoy writing letters for exceptional students.

However, before you ask me, first consider if I will be a good recommendation for you.  If I cannot write an exceptional letter about you, I may inadvertently hurt your application. In general, whenever you’re requesting letters of recommendation, be certain that the writer can write an excellent letter of recommendation.

Now, before you ask me to write a letter for you, please consider the following questions, then decide: (1) If I would be a good letter writer for you, and then (2) Provide the answers to me via email.

How well do I know you?

Good recommendation letters will have explicit details that demonstrate your abilities as an excellent student. For this requirement, I need to have examples of your successes. Please tell me at least two examples of your excellence in the classroom. For example, describe your leadership of a class project or explain how a paper/assignment for my class advanced your knowledge or passion. Then please include how many times we met in office hours and any examples of how our office hour conversations benefited your studies.

Second, understand a bit about the recommendation process. Depending on the context of the recommendation letter, there may be many questions that I have to answer regarding you.  Most applications ask me to compare you to other students that I have taught. Other applications are more specific. For example, “Describe how you think the applicant demonstrated critical thinking skills” or “Rate this student’s ability to hand interpersonal communication.” If I don’t know you well enough, I will have difficult answering these questions. Therefore, you should ask someone else to write a letter of recommendation. To assist me in this process, tell me the exact questions that I will be asked to answer.

Third, have I read your writing? In public relations and other communication professions, I will be asked about your writing ability. For graduate school recommendation letters, I need to read an original composition of at least 10 pages. For public relations positions, I need to read examples of your media releases, feature stories, and even design samples. Similarly, in my courses that are more team activity-based, it will be difficult

If I have not read your writing but we had a close relationship in office hours, I am still willing to write a letter for you, but understand that I cannot mention offer recommendations/evaluations of your writing ability.

How large was the class and what type of class was it?

Remember that if our only interaction was in a large lecture class, it will be more difficult for me to write a letter of recommendation and adequately answer questions about your abilities. You might want to seek out another faculty member who you formed a relationship in a smaller class.

How did you perform in the class?

This is an important factor to consider. As a matter of professional courtesy, I will not mention your overall grade in my letter. But understand that simply receiving a good grade in my class will not result in a good letter. There are more factors involved.

What do you want me to include in your application?

Tell me details! To help you succeed, I need to know specifically what I need to add to your overall application. Highlight aspects that you want me to focus on in your application/letter of recommendation.

If you answered the four questions satisfactorily, here are the next steps:

        1. Give me as much advance notice as possible (Two weeks at the minimum). It’s even better to start taking with me months before the letters are due about your possible future needs.
        1. Let’s schedule a time to meet and talk about your application.
        1. Include the following in your initial email: the semester, year, and the name of the course(s) you took with me.
        1. If it has been more than a year since you took my course, please provide me with an update about your activities.
        1. Explain to me why you are applying to the program/job.
        1. Email me your resume and a copy of the personal statement for the program/job (if applicable).
        1. Explain to me exactly what program/job you are applying to so that I can address it in the recommendation letter. Also provide any relevant hyperlinks to the program/job/application site. If you are applying to multiple graduate programs, include a comprehensive list.

Food for Thought

It’s important for students to think about recommendation letters in their freshman and sophomore years. Think about strategies and tactics to increase the odds of receiving excellent letters of recommendation. For example, enroll in smaller courses with tenure-track professors (not classes taught by graduate students or fixed term faculty) – tenure-track professors’ letters of recommendation often carry more weight with application committees.

Enrolling in numerous writing class and writing for student media is a great way to get to know your professors and generate write samples.

Finally, please go to office hours (in-person or virtual), even if it has nothing to do with course content. Office hours are one of the few opportunities for faculty and students to form meaningful student-teacher relationships.

Request a Letter of Recommendation

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