How to request a letter of recommendation

August 31, 2012    letter of recommendation fellowships grad school faculty

Hopefully your recommendation letter is more specific

Photo by tribbles1971

This post is aimed at undergraduate juniors/seniors who are planning to apply for graduate/professional school in Fall 2012. Disclaimer: I am not an expert in requesting letters. This is a guide from my application experience and advice from faculty, as well as MD and PhD applicants.

Requesting a letter of recommendation is always a a tricky situation. I’m in this exact situation for fellowship applications this fall.

Recommendations: More than just letters

The first thing you need to understand about recommendation letters is that it’s not just a piece of writing. The faculty have to rank you vs all the other people they’ve had at your relative position, then vs all undergrads, plus they assess your maturity, character, communication skills, and all that. It’s a lot of forms. So you want to make all those steps as easy as possible for your recommender.

When to ask: as early as possible (1.5-2+ months in advance)

Faculty are busy people. In a recent correspondence with a faculty member, they told me they are traveling for the next eight weeks and I won’t be able to make an appointment with them until late October or November. If you are asking a particularly busy faculty, I recommend at least two months ahead of time.

Writing a glowing recommendation about you should be as easy as possible

Whoever you ask for your recommendation letters, they are probably people who have positive views of you and your work. However, they may not have the time or energy necessary to write you the glowing recommendation that they think you deserve. So, help them out by doing some of the work yourself!

When you request a letter of recommendation, you should give them as much information as you can so that your recommender will write a fantastic letter of recommendation with the least possible friction. This information should be in the form of a bound packet. The “packet” idea came from my accomplished friend Jia Zhu, currently in her second year at Harvard Medical School (check out her research from this summer!).

What I put in my packet

  1. Cover page
  2. Dear Professor X, I am writing to request the possibility of a recommendation ……. Here are all the awesome things I did while working with you
  3. Table of Contents
  4. List of schools/fellowships with deadlines
  5. CV
  6. Photos of you doing awesome things
  7. Essay drafts
  8. Transcripts
  9. Test scores

My packet as an example

Here is my packet [21MB PDF], edited for privacy, which I gave to one of my recommenders. You may notice a table of contents. After I printed out the packet, I coil-bound it at Kinko’s with a cardstock back and hand-wrote the page numbers on each page. As for the essays in the packet, keep in mind that these were truly draft essays and that my final submissions were quite different. Also, I did not win a Hertz or Paul and Daisy Soros fellowship, so they are not examples of winning essays. I did, however, receive an Honorable Mention for my NSF essays, though the one in here is not the final version. There will be more posts about essay writing later.

What you should put in your packet

  1. Cover page (Fall 2011 Recommendation Packet for [Your Name])
  2. Dear Professor X, I am writing to request the possibility of a recommendation ……. Here are all the awesome things I did while working with you
  3. Draft letters
  4. Table of Contents
  5. List of schools/fellowships with deadlines
  6. CV
  7. Photos of you doing awesome things
  8. Essay drafts

The bolded items are what I consider to be the most important ones, and I’ll tell you why.

Draft letters are how you ensure high-quality recommendations

Draft letters are incredibly important. Last year was the first time I was asked for a draft letter and it caught me off-guard. Be prepared by writing your own letter of recommendation. As you know from your university writing classes, it is much easier to edit an existing piece of writing than to start from scratch. What you absolutely do not want is for the professor to say “this person took my course as a junior and received an A.”

You may need to include several different draft letters for your recommenders. For example, maybe you are applying to fellowship A that emphasizes service, then the draft letter for fellowship A should talk about the service you performed in relation to the recommender. You do not want to have your research supervisor speak volumes about your service record when they’ve never seen you in action. Hopefully you have a recommender who can directly speak about your service work, and then you can emphasize which projects or roles are most pertinent to this fellowship.

Resources for writing recommendation letters:

Essay drafts

Essay drafts (even the very beginnings of one!) are very important because they show your recommender why you want to go to graduate school. Your recommender will see how you present yourself to the committee, and can write a complementary letter. I also suggest a conversation with your recommender about your goals for graduate school.

Do not assume your recommender/their assistant remembers when all your deadlines are

I made this mistake as I emailed a reminder to my very early (October 31st) first fellowship deadline the day before it was due, and turns out some of my recommenders were totally oblivious to when everything was. Even though I e-mailed a fancy spreadsheet with all the deadlines and I put them all in the packet!

Ideally, the timeline would look like this:

  • 1-2 months before (aim for 3 months) - Request recommendations via the packet

If they agree and have not yet submitted:

  • 1 month before - remind about deadline, update with anything cool you’ve done so far
  • 2 weeks before - remind about deadline
  • 1 week before - remind about deadline

Of course, after they submit, you don’t need to remind them anymore.

Other (hopefully obvious) tips

  • Be honest in your packet and in your application.
  • Waive your right to read the letter. The committee will trust the letter more, and the recommender will be free to speak their mind.
  • Be courteous in all your interactions with your recommenders and the admissions committees.

If there are any faculty reading this post…

Can you answer these questions for me?

  • If someone were to request a letter of recommendation, should they ask by email or by sending the packet? I like the packet because then it shows I really want them but maybe I should request, and THEN send. My strategy this year was to send the packet and then send an email saying I sent a packet to ask for the possibility of a recommendation. Nobody declined but I’m curious.
  • Should I update you with my newest drafts of essays? do you care?
  • Should I update you with cool things I started doing since I sent you that packet?

After you find out about fellowships and/or decide on schools

Say “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Your recommenders did a lot of work for you so make sure you appreciate them, and tell them where you got in! Writing recommendation letters is part of their job, so gifts are not appropriate.

It’s a lot of work

This is a lot of information, and a lot of work. But remember, you want to make the letter-writing process as easy as possible for your recommender. I cannot emphasize this enough. Whoever your recommenders are, they are well-intended busy people who want you to do well, but may not have enough time to write the ideal letter of recommendation. Help them out!

Do you have any suggestions for writing recommendations that I missed? Let me know!

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