Letters of rec: How you ask for them matters!

I know that when I was a student, I had a great deal of anxiety about asking for letters of rec, and now that I am on the other side of the table, I wanted to share a bit of perspective that I have gained, to help you get the best possible letters of support. First of all, it is important to remember that writing a letter (if the person is writing you a good one) requires a tremendous amount of work, so you want them to understand that you know you are asking for a  favor. And I say that not to dissuade you from asking, but to remind you that you are looking for ways to show your gratitude and appreciation. This begins in the way that you ask for this favor.

Provide all materials without having been asked
Anything that describes why it is that you want this opportunity. Also, a paragraph that explains what skills, interests, experiences, qualifications etc of yours make you a particularly suitable candidate. This is only to your benefit as it will make your recommendation letter stronger.

Clearly communicate when/how the materials are due
And remind them. Your reccommender is probably writing at least 20 such letters, and they cannot possibly keep track of all of your logistics like the address to which yours need to be sent, whether submitted online or mailed, Send reminders about a week ahead of the due date that convey your gratitude and ask if there is any material that is still needed – you would not believe how much time it takes to have to look this up, so this is a wonderful way to show appreciation.

Tell your recommender why it is that you want THEM to write you this letter
And DO NOT ever let this reason be: “because I asked 3 other people ahead of you and they have all said no.” Tell this person something about what you learned from them, why it is that they have particular insight into your qualifications. And this is not just to flatter them. This will help them craft a letter with the best possible insight into your unique gifts, which will make your letter that much stronger.

Give them an out
There may be many reasons why this person does not feel as though they would be the best person to write a letter for you, some of which may have to do with you and some of which may have absolutely nothing to do with you, for example, their employment status at the institution where you happened to have taken the class, or their relationship with the person to whom you have asked them to write the letter. And in fact, it may be a bit awkward for them to go into all of this with you, and it probably would be much better for all parties involved if they do not, but in order to help protect their face in this way, you need to give them an out. Something along the lines of “if for whatever reason you do not feel as though you cannot write me a strong letter…”

Do NOT throw your stress at them!
Believe me, your reccomender understands how stressful this processes of applying for graduate school and applying for jobs are. We have been through it. Most of us many MANY times. Take a breath. Take a minute to step back and think about what you are asking them to do for you. You are asking them to vouch for you that you are prepared to take on increased commitment and responsibility. When you come to them with your angst and stress about the application process itself, this does not bode well. Think very carefully about why it is that you are applying for this now and whether or not you are truly ready.

Which brings me to……
Ask for these at least a month ahead if possible, and especially if this request falls over a holiday, such as Christmas break. Professors have a reputation for having a great deal of free time, but the truth of the matter is that what they have is perhaps only somewhat greater freedom in scheduling their time. Most faculty are booked solid at least 2 weeks out during any given moment of the semester, and so to ask for a letter with less than two weeks’ lead time means that you are asking them to sacrifice something that has already been committed to. This is quite stressful, and is not likely to put them in the best mood to sing your praises as an organized, thoughtful, and considerate individual.

The good news is that if you feel like they are a good person to write your letter, it is probably because you felt a connection to them, to something that they taught you, to something that they are passionate about.  They likely felt this too, so keep accentuating this!  🙂  And here’s to better and better rec letters!  🙂

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