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Letters of Recommendation FAQs
1. Who should I ask to write a letter of recommendation for me?
2. How should I ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for me?
3. How can I tell if someone will NOT be a good recommender?
4. How can I get to know my professors?
5. What information should you provide your recommender?
6. How early should you notify a recommender?
7. How do you politely remind a professor of the due date?
In many cases, the application will provide you with guidance about who to ask (i.e. a professor or an employer). For graduate/professional school and most scholarship applications, it is best to ask for letters from your professors.
The best letters of recommendation come from individuals who know you well—individuals who can write about how you think, work, and interact. A good letter of recommendation will be specific to you, your abilities, and your interests, and it will be specific to the opportunity (i.e. it will explain how you would make a strong graduate student or would be a strong candidate for a specific scholarship).
Make a list of professors who know you well. Think of professors with whom you have worked with on extended projects or whose courses you have taken. Ask yourself which of these professors know you the best.
When asking a professor for a letter of recommendation for the first time, ask in person. Go to the professor’s office hours or schedule an appointment. Talk with the professor about your goals. Follow up with an email. Your email should include additional information about yourself and the scholarship. Attach a resume and include clear instructions about what the letter should address (for example, the scholarship committee is particularly interested in my leadership abilities) and how it should be delivered (provide an address).
Professors are busy, and it will likely take them some time to sit down and write a quality letter of recommendation; give at least two weeks notification with materials.
Please see our handout on letters of recommendation for additional information and sample emails.
- If they ask you to write the letter for them
- If they tell you that they are not sure they will have time to complete it
- If they do not know you well and are not willing to take the time to meet with you to discuss your goals and interests
You can start by going to their office hours and talking with them about course topics or your academic interests. You can ask their advice about graduate school or research opportunities. If you know a professor is working on a project, ask if there is anything you can do to help. Make an active effort to participate in your classes.
You should provide your letter writers with information about the opportunity (2-3-sentence description of the program/opportunity and a link) and the deadline. Give them with information about your project, goals, and/or intentions. You can do this by providing a brief description and attaching your proposal, resume, and/or essay to the email.
You can also ask letter writers to address specific topics in their letters. For example, you might ask an individual to discuss your leadership ability or your research experience.
Professors generally appreciate it if you provide them with a stamped and addressed envelope. If you want to pick up the letter in person, you should ask your writer to seal it and sign the outside.
Generally, it is a good idea to waive your right to view letters of recommendation. Writers tend to be more honest when you have waived your right to view their assessment of you, and readers are aware of this and tend to distrust letters you have seen.
If you have the time, give them 4-5 weeks, and then contact them again 1-2 weeks prior to the deadline with a polite reminder.
You can stop by his or her office or send an email. Keep it professional, to the point, and polite. Give them the deadline as a reminder. Here is an example:
I am making my final preparations for the X application. I wanted to send you a little reminder that your letter of recommendation is due in two weeks, on (date). If you have any final questions before submitting it, please feel free to contact me. I greatly appreciate your time and commitment.
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