How to: Get Letters of Recommendation 

So you’re applying to schools, jobs, or any other program that will further your path to success. There’s just one problem, though: you need letters of recommendation. At first, this seems scary for some, because no one really teaches you how that works. Fear not, I’m here to explain my experience and the proper etiquette for requesting letters of recommendation.

  1. Start Early

Even if you aren’t thinking about any particular instance in which you’ll need a letter of recommendation, start forming relationships with people that you think might be able to write them for you. If you have professors that you think might be able to write you a letter, make sure to always attend their  class and put in 110% of your effort into their assignments. Try to stand out in their classes by participating (but also make sure you give other students a space to speak) and doing exemplary work. Obviously, if you miss one class or forget about one assignment, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s good to start being conscious of how your professors might perceive you early on.

2. Select More than You Need

If you’re required to have 3 letters of recommendation, consider asking 5 professors if they would be interested in writing a letter for you. This is helpful if you have a professor that would love to write a letter for you but is too busy to complete the task.

3. Ask Politely

Seems pretty basic, right? We’ve been taught to ask for things politely but some people forget, and some of my professors have discussed feeling annoyed or irritated when students have emailed them saying something like “Hey I need a letter of recommendation next week can you write it?” Not only is this rude, but there are some mistakes here that I’ll address below.

4. Make Your Letter Something They Want to Do

In our example above, you didn’t give your recommender time, details, a reason to write about you, or anything you’d specifically like them to write about.

a) Time: You want to email your recommender at least 6-10 weeks before you need a letter, or longer if you will need it to be mailed (though this isn’t typical, but a good reminder to always check the websites of jobs or programs you’re doing this for, or call the company to find out how your letters need to be delivered).

b) Details: Give your recommender a list of the programs you need this for, if more than one, but if it’s for a school, specify which school, the program within the school, and it’s smart to always give them a contact like the office phone number or the email address of the program coordinator.

c) A Reason to Write About You: You want them to want to write about you, so you might begin your email with something like “Hi Dr. Blank, I really enjoyed your Art and Culture class last spring, as well as our time tabling together for last week’s event.” This way, the recommender remembers times where you’ve interacted and where you’ve hopefully gone above and beyond.

d) What to Write About: This won’t apply to everyone, but some people want to know what to focus on in their letter. Without being tacky and listing all the amazing things about yourself that you want them to talk about, you could consider framing it like this in your email “Since you’re aware of my extensive community service work, I was wondering if you would be interested in writing a letter of recommendation for me as I attempt to apply for graduate schools.” This way, you’re making it clear that you want them to talk about the community service you’ve done, but you aren’t being obnoxious. On that note, most recommenders will want to see your resume or statement of purpose (I’ll do a whole post about that soon!), so have that handy in case they want to see it. I usually will preemptively attach it in these emails.

5. Follow Up

Once people have agreed to write your letters, make sure they know the deadlines that the letters are due by, and then follow up with them occasionally throughout the duration of time they’re supposed to be writing your letter. I would send a follow up email about 3 weeks away from your deadline, and then the week that it’s due. A simple “I just wanted to remind you that my FSU letter deadline is in three weeks, on the 28th. If there’s anything additional that you need from me, please let me know” will do, as long as that’s not the only thing you write. If you’re feeling nervous that you’re being a pest, what I like to do is send a more up-to-date version of my resume or statement of purpose, that way I can say, “Here’s my updated resume!” because that will jog their memory of you.

If you have questions about recommendation letters, leave them in the comments!


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