Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation can be critical parts of job, internship, and graduate-school applications. Asking for a letter of recommendation correctly, and providing those writing letters for you with needed information, will help to ensure that the letter written for you is as good as it can be.

One responsibility of anyone who works with students is to provide letters of recommendation as these students progress through their education.  Although most of your professors are busy, a part of what we are all expected to do is write letters of recommendation.  So, you should not feel that you are asking something unreasonable of a professor when you ask him or her to write a letter of recommendation for you.

However, a professor who is willing to write a letter for you is going out of his or her way to do so.  Also, a well-crafted letter of recommendation requires significant effort, and you do want your letter to be crafted well, so a professor who writes a well-crafted letter for you is going even a bit more out of his or her way.  Consequently, you want to maximize the clarity of your appreciation for a professor who is writing you a letter and minimize the work that a professor must accomplish to write a well-crafted letter for you.

Asking for the Letter

Timing: Two weeks is the minimum lead-time you should give a professor to complete a letter of recommendation.  If you need the letter in less than two weeks, you need to acknowledge clearly, and probably several times, that you are aware that you are not providing the time that you should provide (“I know that I am not giving you much time to write this letter, but I just became aware of this scholarship.”).  A month is better than two weeks.

The Initial Request for a Letter: My view is that asking for things is best done in person, when that is possible.  So, I suggest that you ask for a letter in person, if you can.  This might mean coming before class or staying after class to ask about the possibility, or going to a professor’s office hours to ask.  If you rarely see the professor and the professor is likely to know you, then you could write an email asking for a letter.  The initial request is often a quick exchange.  Typically, you would want to:

• Start by asking for the letter straight-out, “Professor Smith, I would like to ask you to write a letter of recommendation for me.”

• Say briefly what the letter is for, “I’m applying for. . . and I need a letter from two of my professors.”

• Maybe say something a bit flattering, such as “You probably know me better than most of my other professors,” or “I liked the honors course I took from you last semester very much and we had many interesting discussions so I think you know me pretty well.”

• Finish up with when the letter is due and that, if the professor can write the letter for you, you can bring the needed materials by the professor’s office.

A Thank-you Email:  Soon after you make the initial request, you should follow with a thank-you email.  This will remind the professor about the letter and is a polite thing to do. “Thanks again, Professor Smith, for being willing to write the letter or recommendation for me for (whatever it was). I will be bringing the applications by your office soon. Thanks again.”

In some cases, the letter of recommendation is submitted over the web, and the professor will be getting a note from the organization requesting the recommendation.  If this is the case, be sure to include specific information about this in your thank-you email.  With all the junk we get through email, it can be easy for a professor to delete the request if it comes from some organization that the professor does not recognize.

Materials to Take to the Professor

The amount and type of material you give to the professor will depend on the reason for the letter.  Whatever it is that you give the professor, it should be very well organized.  Once you have all the material together, put everything in an envelope big enough to hold it all without too much folding.  Write something like “letter of recommendation for . . .” on the envelope.  Do not bring a stack of material and hope that the professor can keep everything together.  You do not want something vital to get lost.  It is up to you to organize things well.

And, it is very important to have a cover letter (or cover note) that is at the front of all the material, that states your name, what the letter is for, how the professor will submit it (e.g., will someone be sending a link to an online letter, does the letter get mailed), and other important information.  Even if you tell the professor all this information, repeat it again in this note.  I, for one, deal with lots of students every day, and it is easy for me to forget important information that one of them may have told me.  Redundancy is always a good idea in these types of situations.  (I just added this paragraph to this blog entry, and the addition was prompted by the fact that I have a request to write a letter to some foundation sitting on my desk.  I have no idea who this is for.  This is a problem.  Yes, I should have noted the student's name on the form, but I forgot.  I am hoping that I can find out who needs this letter.)

Application materials: These may include forms that the professor completes and envelopes for returning the forms to you or mailing them directly to the institution to which you are applying.

• First, remember to fill out everything on the form that you can complete.  Where it asks for the name and address of the professor, you should write that in.  You are, after all, the person who hopes to benefit from the letter - so it is your responsibility to do as much work as you can on it - relieving the professor from these tasks.  If there is a place for you to sign the form, sign and date it.

This is also true for online letters of recommendation.  Fill in all the information for the professor that you can.  Do not expect the professor to put in the address of the university or her title.  You can do this.

• Second, if the professor will be mailing the letters, you should provide envelopes, address them, and attach the proper postage.  Then, paper clip each envelope to the corresponding form.  Do not expect the professor to match up a stack of forms with a stack of envelopes - again, you should be doing everything you can to make the task easy for the professor.

Supporting materials: Some supporting material should be included with every request for a letter:

• A resume, even if it is not very long.  If you are in your first year of college, you might include some high-school activities on this resume.  Be sure to check the spelling and layout of the resume.  I am amazed at the high percentage of resumes I receive that have at least one spelling error.  As I am looking at your resume in preparation for writing your letter, you do not want me to see that you cannot write a resume carefully.

• A transcript.  This does not have to be an official transcript.  Print it from My UAlbany - that is sufficient.  If you are a freshman and do not have any grades yet, you might want to print the courses you are taking now and will be taking next semester.

• Specifics on any course you have taken with the professor: Either on your transcript or a separate piece of paper, you can provide information about papers you have written for the professor.  For example, give the title of any paper you wrote and the grade you received, or maybe include the abstract along with the grade you received, or maybe make a copy of the abstract and the page on which the professor wrote comments and the grade.  If you wrote a couple short papers, maybe include the entire papers.

It may also be helpful to include other specialized supporting materials.

• If you are a senior and applying to graduate school, you might include a draft of your personal statement and the abstract from your honors thesis.

• If you are applying for an internship and have written a paper in a course that is relevant to the internship, include a copy of the paper.

• If you are applying for a scholarship or entrance to some program and that scholarship or program has a website, include the URL.

You do not want to load the professor down with information that is not relevant to the task of writing the letter (e.g., the papers you wrote for other courses), but provide anything else that might be useful.  If the professor does not want to use it, he or she will toss it out.  Now, it is true that this might cost you some additional money copying material for a professor - but the payoff of this addition dollar or two may be substantial.  So, keep the big picture in mind.

A Reminder

I always ask students to send me a reminder a week before the letter is due (or the first letter is due if I am sending the letter to multiple locations).  I believe that it is appropriate for you to send an email reminder to the professors who you asked to write a letter.  Send it about 7-10 days before the letter is due.  The reminder should be brief: “Dear Professor Smith, I’m writing to remind you that the letter of recommendation for the Alsijflaskdhfj Scholarship is due in a week.  If I can provide any additional information about the Alsijflaskdhfj Scholarship, please let me know.”  This way, it is not only a reminder, it is also an offer to provide additional information if needed.

A Thank-you Note

Take a bit of time and write a thank-you note to the professor, after the letters have been sent.  Thanking people is always the correct thing to do.  I get about 70 emails a day and about 1 written note a month.  So, a note is more notable (what a great line!).

A Follow-up Note: When you hear from the schools/programs/etc. you have applied to, send the professor a note (an email is probably OK).  Give her or him the outcome, even if it is not positive.  Thank the professor again.