FAQ for Students Asking for Letters of Recommendation
Checklist, before you request the letter:
- Keep track of the deadlines. Ideally, your letter writers should have at least one month’s notice. Keep in mind that a potential letter writer might have to decline, and you’ll want to have enough time to find an alternate.
- Is this the right person from whom to request a letter? Choose people who are most familiar with your studies, research interests, or work, including at least one professor in the field in which you expect to study. (Schools/employers may have even more specific requirements.) In an academic setting, choose a professor from whom you earned a good grade in one or more classes, that you have impressed by your academic performance, creativity, work ethic, and sparkling personality. A seminar or upper-level class should give the instructor the opportunity to know you and to write a detailed, substantive letter addressing qualities such as professionalism, leadership potential, emotional maturity, and ability to work with others.
- A letter from a family member or personal friend is not helpful, even if they evaluate your performance within a professional environment. A letter from a public figure or famous scientist that you have chosen solely because of their name/title is also not helpful.
- Did you just finish a class/job, but think you might be requesting a “big” letter when you graduate, or after a gap year, some time in the future? Let your potential letter writer know about your plans to request a letter. Perhaps ask them to write you a lower-stakes letter now, for example, to be a dorm RA or to land a summer internship, so that s/he will have this letter to start from, a few years down the road.
- On a related topic, over the years, keep your letter writers up to date on what you’re doing. For example, “Dr. X, I did a summer internship at Company Y this past summer and it really confirmed my desire to do research. One of the problems involved the topic of Z, and the group exercises we did in your class really came in handy as I was able to use Program W and Journal paper T to help my team solve the problem.”
- Are your letters “stale”? (The weaker value of old letters was specifically mentioned by a representative from the UW School of Medicine.) If you are re-applying after an unsuccessful admission cycle, we strongly urge you to have your letter writers update their letters and send them again. It’s important to maintain your relationships with your letter writers and mentors, letting them know you’re still passionate about attending grad/med/dental school, and filling them in about your recent and current activities, updated test scores, triumphs and struggles, and other things you have been doing to strengthen your application.
- You cannot be involved in the drafting or writing of your recommendation letter. If your letter writer asks you to write a letter for them to sign, run.
- Decide whether or not to waive your right to access the letter of recommendation. It is nearly universal practice to do so. Most people cannot provide a candid and truthful letter unless you waive your right to access the letter. Employers and grad/professional schools are well aware of this.
Checklist, at the time you request the letter:
- Request the letter in person, i.e., make an appointment or visit during office hours. Make a request by email only if you’re not in town. If you simply place a letter request form in their mailbox or shove one under their office door, with no cover letter or advance notice, they will think you were raised by wolves.
- It is your job to provide your letter writers with a list of the schools you are applying to, and what degree you’re seeking in each case. Tell your letter writer about the program/position you are applying to. Why did you choose this particular program, and what excites you about the opportunity to study/work there?
- Please provide a draft or final copy of your personal statement to your letter writers. It should already be proofread and you should have spent a considerable amount of time on multiple drafts, and solicited feedback from as many individuals as you could muster. Fundamentally, such a statement should provide your motivations for pursuing graduate study or a particular job.
- If your letter writer is a faculty member, please provide an unofficial copy of your college transcript. It will remind them of when you took their class, and also give them an overall picture of your courses of study and your academic performance.
- Please provide an updated CV to your letter writers, ideally highlighting key points (relevant experience or volunteer work, computer languages you know, particular instrumentation skills, scholarships and awards, preferred pronouns, etc). It will provide a more well-rounded picture of you, what your interests are outside of class, jobs you’ve held, etc.
- It may have been a while since your letter writer supervised you in a job, or had you in class. It may be helpful to jog his/her memory, e.g., “Here is my last performance review from you”, or, “I took your ___ class in spring of 20XX, earning an A- and your ___ class in the fall of 20YY, earning an A. In your class, we had a research paper and I chose the topic of X. Here’s a copy of the paper along with the comments you wrote on it. You also commended me on the thoroughness of my oral presentation, and said it was very clear and easy to understand.”
Checklist, after you request the letter:
- You should not help your recommender submit their letter – it should be submitted by them directly. Accepting or viewing a copy of the letter is inappropriate. If the letter needs to be translated into English, they should employ an outside translation service.
- Keep track (on your applicant’s website) of which letters have been submitted on your behalf. If a particular deadline is fast approaching and your letter writer hasn’t come through yet, a reminder to them would be much appreciated, e.g., “Thank you so much for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for me to School X’s MS program. Their deadline for letters is January 15, a week from today, and I noticed that your letter hasn’t been submitted yet. As a quick reminder, Schools Y and Z have a deadline of February 1. Thanks again for agreeing to write these letters for me.”
- As a matter of etiquette, make sure to sincerely thank your letter writers. They will have spent considerable time supporting your application. You should, at the least, handwrite a thank-you card.
- Most importantly, let your letter writers know what eventually happens with respect to the admission/hiring decision. Telling them the outcome is not just the polite and right thing to do, but it will help them calibrate future letters for you, and for other students. Include information such as “I was offered admission to Programs A and B, and will be attending Program B in the fall” or “I didn’t get in during this cycle, but the admission officer at School C told me that my lack of a substantial job shadow experience and a relatively low professional test score diminished my chances. This coming year, I’ll be working as a ____ to get more experience. and studying the test guide, with plans to retake the test during the month of ____.”