Asking for Letters of Recommendation
Strong letters of recommendation are necessary to get into a graduate or professional program. They can also help you secure funding during your first year. While you do not have control over what recommenders write, the steps below will help you obtain the best letters possible.
Do not wait until a week or two before the application deadline to ask for letters of recommendation. First of all, your potential recommenders may decline because they do not feel they can write a strong letter of support or because they simply do not have the time. For those who do agree to write letters, and for most programs you will need three letters, they will still need time to review your academic record and personal statement, write the letter, and allow a few days for mailing. It is in your best interests to ask at least one month before any deadline to make sure your three recommenders have plenty of time to craft strong and nuanced letters of support.
Ask the Right People
Depending on the program to which you apply and your work-related experiences, you will want to ask professors, employers, or other appropriate people to write letters that assess your academic progress and potential as well as, if applicable, your work ethic. For most graduate programs, at least two letters should be from professors. Make sure that you are asking for recommendations from people who know you and your work well enough to write a detailed letter. A strong, but bland or generic letter will not be enough to get you into graduate or professional school, let alone get funding. Also, to the best of your ability, try to discern who may be the best letter writer. If you notice some professors or employers are careless with their written work, they may produce a sloppy letter that will reflect poorly on you.
For each recommender, prepare a folder that includes all of the necessary items to write a strong, detailed letter. Such items include the following: a copy of your transcripts, a current resume or curriculum vitae, a draft of your personal statement, the recommendation form and an addressed and stamped envelope. If you are applying to multiple schools, provide a recommendation form, personal statement, and an addressed and stamped envelope for each application. You will also want to sit down with your recommenders to go over the folder and give them an opportunity to offer comments on your personal statements. The more invested your recommenders are, the stronger letter they are likely to write.
Make sure that you are clear about when different letters are due. Late letters may reflect poorly on your candidacy. Include a list of deadlines for each letter and put a post-it note with the due date on each recommendation form so that your recommenders are clear when everything is due. It is also appropriate to send a polite reminder a week or two before each deadline.
Keep track of who wrote letters for each application and whether or not you were admitted to that program. You may notice a trend of good or bad letters.
Stay in Touch
Let your recommenders know how you did. They have a vested interest in your success and will want to know if you got into any programs and if so, which you chose. If you did not get in, you can brainstorm with them about how to improve your candidacy. You may also need letters in the future, especially if you are applying for funding in your first year of graduate school and have not yet established a professional record at your new program. It is up to maintain such professional relationships.
For the Future
All of the above advice applies for asking for letters of recommendation while a graduate or professional school student. You may find that you are regularly asking for letters for external programs of study (i.e. a language program or internship), assistantships, grants and fellowships, and post-graduate school employment. By being organized and maintaining good, professional relationships with your recommenders, you will strengthen all of your applications at each stage of your career.