Advice to Students on Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

You Need a Letter of Recommendation?  Great!  Here is Some Advice

This advice applies to students asking a letter from me, and probably applies to most professors.

First of all, congratulations of moving forward with your goals, whatever they may be.  I am almost always happy to write you a letter.  And since you want the letter to be the strongest possible, you don’t want me to be really frustrated as I sit down to write the letter because I am having to find the instructions that you probably should have sent me yourself.

I appreciate being asked as far in advance as possible.  I know sometimes opportunities come up at the last minute and plans change, so last minute requests are OK.  But advance warning is appreciated.

When you do contact me, provide some background information (“Hi I took your Introduction to Archaeology in 2016 and got a B.  My paper was on X.”) especially if you have only been in one class of mine.  I deal with lots of students every year and it helps to have something to remind me of who you are.  I will let you know if I can do the letter.

Sometimes students are worried about whether or not someone will provide a strong letter.  If you are concerned about this, it is perfectly OK to as your referees  “Can you give me a strong letter of recommendation?”  Most evaluators should be fine with this and will give you an honest answer. As for myself, when I am approached by a student for a letter of recommendation and I am not sure I can write a strong letter on behalf of the student, I will usually let them know if they have not asked.  This typically leads to a discussion with the student, and usually I find the student is as aware of their strengths and weaknesses as I am.

Students should also take care with selecting the most relevant references. If you are applying to graduate school, it usually makes sense to have people that can speak to your academic abilities. Getting a reference from a manager of a restaurant where you work that can verify you could show up on time usually is not as useful.

Then you should try and do as much as possible to help me get the letter done on your behalf.  Here is your checklist:

  1. Help out with the administration.  If the form I need to fill out is online, send me the link.  If I need to send a letter via mail, send me the address.  If I have a paper form I need to fill out get me a copy of the form or a link to the form.  It is very frustrating when I have to hunt around for this information myself.  Make sure the instructions for my letter are very clear. Increasingly forms are online and I get sent a link, but if your letter process is atypical, let me know in as much detail as you can.
  2. Send me a copy of your application essay or letter.  I can provide a much stronger letter if I can see what you are trying to communicate.  If there are elements of this I can reinforce in my letter, I will.
  3. Remind me of ways that I know your work so I don’t leave any out.  List what classes have you taken with me, what were your paper topics were in the class (if applicable), have you worked in my lab, did we work together on a field project, etc.  I usually remember all of these, but I appreciate the reminders and it keeps me from having to search it out myself to double check.
  4. Let me know the deadline.

After you have finished that, feel free to send me reminders as the deadline approaches.  I am usually very good about remembering, but I don’t want your application to be the one time I let something slip.  I usually try and let students know when I sent off a letter on their behalf.

Finally, I know when I was a student I thought of letters of recommendation as something very mysterious.  I requested them from others, but never saw one myself.  To demystify them a little bit, let me describe what I typically write for an undergraduate applying for a job, an internship, or graduate school.  Usually there are three parts in the letter I write.

  1. First, I establish how and why I know the student, and provide a fair amount of detail.  This lets the person reading the letter know the basis for my evaluation.   For courses, I list the course, term, the grade, and any other relevant details.  I might list or even discuss term papers of final projects the student might have done if it is relevant.  For fieldwork I will discuss some of the details about the work such as what we did and the type of site we worked on.
  2. Second, I enumerate some of the qualities of the student that I am aware of from those interactions.  I might be able to say a student is hard working, a good writer, asks intelligent questions, helps their peers, in engaged in class, has good comprehension, or any number of things.  I obviously try and focus on the good things but it is also important I be honest in these letters so I will also mention things that are weaknesses or that need work.
  3. Finally, I try and anticipate the skills needed for the position or opening the student is applying for and I try and specifically say whether or not I have an opinion on their abilities.  If the student is applying for graduate school I will probably discuss whether the student is a good writer, is capable of graduate-level school work, and can communicate well.  For an entry-level job in a CRM firm I might discuss whether the student knows how to do field work and lab work, whether the student is a hard worker, whether they can get along with others, and whether they can write.

I hope this helps you understand the process a little better.
Congratulations and best of luck!