Students often confess to me their frustration in trying to get these letters from their professors, but professors also complain about how so and so were so unprepared and how unrealistic some people are about the process. Students have their realities of deadlines and craziness, but professors have their craziness as well.
Here are a few tips that I hope will help students to approach a professor for the best results for all involved. Hopefully, my explanations will take some of the mystery away from why a professor may be reluctant to help you, and what is the best way to ensure that you get a sparkling recommendation letter well before the deadline when you need it, and one that will put you at the top of an applicant slush pile.
1. Always follow up in writing any request for a recommendation, and include as much information as possible about who you are, when you took our class or classes, which class or classes those were, and a couple of details that may helps us remember.
Just because I may have agreed to it in the hallway as I was on my way to class, it doesn’t mean that I’ll remember it once I’m in my office. Even if I know your face and your name, I may have forgotten that in addition to my advanced class, you also took an intro class some years back. And, harsh as this may sound to hear, I don’t always remember who you are, even if I loved your work when you took my class, and especially if it’s been a few years, or if you were rather shy and we didn’t talk much outside of class. Professors meet hundreds of students every semester, and you rotate out of our lives after only a few months to be replaced by hundreds of fresh new faces with brand new names and habits we have to remember. After a few years of teaching, in the classroom alone we will have met thousands of individuals, each equipped with not just a first and last name, but also with nicknames, family issues, personal situations, learning challenges, etc. Outside of the class we deal with hundreds of colleagues, within and beyond University walls. And also we are constantly bombarded with new information to remember: discipline-related material, deadlines, memos, rules and regulations… the list goes on and on and on. Don’t expect that just the mention of your name and a vague reference to a course we may have taught for years is going to be enough to spark the light. Sure, we could scour the archives of our attendance records to find your name and try to job our memory from those years back in the days when… but why make us work so hard? You are asking for a favor, after all. And most professors report working a minimum of 60 hours week. If you want a fast response, give as much information as you can, right away, even as you approach us the first time. If we remembered you already, we will tell you. And if we didn’t, we will be secretly relieved that you let us off the hook.
2. Attach a resume or CV with your request.
Even if you are taking a class with me this semester, I may not know about you everything that I need to know in order to write a fair evaluation of you. For example, if you were an A student in my class, I could certainly talk about your intelligence and learning abilities. But if I discover that while you were in my class you were also president of four different student clubs, held a difficult internship with the local nonprofit organization and also raised a family, I would be able to address your work in my class in the context of everything else that you were juggling at the time. Who knows, maybe I also had experience advising one of the clubs you ran, and I could speak to the kind of work that went into it. Or I might actually have had experience in the kind of internship that you were doing and can speak to its complexity. Giving us a CV will not only help us remember who you are and what you did, but it will also give us fodder for a more interesting and more personal letter.
3. Give us at least a month to write the letter.
To you, a month may seem like a long time, but you are talking to a class of workers who meets deadlines not just every day, but every hour. Teaching classes (and preparing for them) is only one of a number of things that professors have to do. We also have grants to submit, articles to write, clubs to advice, events to organize, grades to submit and millions of other deadlines small and large. We all work off of very tight schedules, and, let’s face it, writing a recommendation letter to a former student may not be the highest priority on that list. Besides that, you want to give us some time to think about it, not just rush off some formatted letter that says we knew you and you’re nice and that’s that: application reviewers can smell a fake letter a mile away. Giving us a month to prepare and respond not only ensures that we will meet your deadline; it will also show that you respect our work and are courteous with our needs. That is very likely to earn you a much nicer recommendation letter than if you bossed us around, expected immediate turnaround of us, and didn’t think enough of our busy schedule to give us adequate time.
4. Always include the full address or email and name of the person, persons, or organization where you want us to send the recommendation. If the recommendation is an online form, make sure that you include the correct link, and that you have provided us with a password.
Again, this goes back to the issue of your showing that you respect our time and efforts. We don’t get paid to write your recommendation letters: we are doing it as a service to you and usually because we really do like you and want you to succeed. So, giving us all the correct information up front will make it less likely that we will put off the task to another day or another hour, and also, we will be in a better mood when we do. It will show us that you are organized, determined and prepared: all things that any applicant would want their reviewers to know about them.
5. If we ask you, do tell us what it is that you want us to say about you.
The first time a professor that I solicited asked me to write my own recommendation letter my jaw dropped. What would I say? How could I say it without sounding either too arrogant or too modest? It really put me in a quandary. Now almost as a matter of fact I ask my students to give me a few lines in their own words of what they’d like me to say about them. While I don’t go as far as asking you to write the letter for me, I do like to hear in your own words what you think is especially important about you. You must know better than anyone what makes you qualified for the position or situation that you are applying for. I will never say anything about you that I don’t believe is true, and I believe that my colleagues are equally scrupulous, but I want to know what you see in yourself. You have to believe that you are qualified to do what you’re asking me to say that you’re qualified to do, or else, what you’re really asking me to do is to lie. And if some professor really does ask you to write your own letter, don’t be shy and submit it with the caveat that he/she may omit or delete or change anything that doesn’t seem to fit his or her opinion of you. Perhaps they are too busy or not so good at writing their own letters. Write what you think is a fair evaluation of yourself and give them permission to change it into their own words. Just be honest and fair to yourself. But there is another thing you must consider: maybe they’re asking you to write the letter because they really don’t know what they should say about you. Which leads me to the next point.
6. Be careful who you ask to write something for you and be sure that you have reasons to believe that they see in you what you want them to see in you.
I’ll give some simple scenarios here. Once as I was interviewing candidates for a postion, I received a letter of recommendation that said explicitly that the candidate was NOT qualified for the position she was applying for. Another time, more recently, a phone reference rated the ability of an applicant to perform the task for which she was being considered as a 5 out of a maximum of 10. The lesson in this is that sometimes people ask for recommendation letters from people who really don’t like them at all. Personally, if I don’t think i can say anything helpful about you, I will have to decline writing the letter for you, but others aren’t so scrupulous. Sometimes, I have just focused the letter on the things that were nice about the applicant, avoiding other things that were a bit more problematic, but this only when the things that were positive about the applicant told me that he/she deserved a chance. Conversely, I have flat out told a student that I could not give him a recommendation because, 1. I didn’t know him that well, seeing as he was often absent, 2. he only did average work and earned an average grade, 3. showed that he was not reliable as he only submitted some of the work, and late. Now, I wonder what made that student ask me, of all people, to write a letter? Some people write nasty recommendation letters out of spite or vengeance or out of an overblown sense of righteousness, but it does say something about you if the one person you choose to recommend you and speak highly about you is someone you don’t understand at all. In the least, it shows you have poor judgement. So, the lesson here is, why are you asking this person to write you a letter? Are you sure this is the best person to ask? Perhaps it might be a good practice before you first approach that person to write down what about you is worth recommending, and why that person would know it.
7. Clearly signal the deadline, and send us a reminder when that deadline approaches.
As I mentioned before, professor really do have to juggle multiple deadlines and multiple tasks. Signaling the date when we are supposed to send the material out will help us plan better, but none of us are perfect, and emergencies do come up even for us. So, a day or two close to the deadline, if you haven’t received a response that we have sent out the letter, do sent a short and friendly reminder.
8. Follow up with a thank you.
After all, you might want to ask us again. 🙂 A simple note, email or phone message would show us that you appreciated the time and effort we put into praising you to the application reviewers. Personally, I actually love to hear when a student I recommended gets into a program or a job. It is lovely to know that, and it takes such little effort for you to keep us informed.