Letters of Recommendation – Who, How, and When to Ask

During the application process for grad school nothing stresses people out more than the issue of asking for letters of recommendation. Well, OK, maybe the GRE/GMAT/LSAT is more stressful, or the statement of purpose, or what schools to apply to … Alright, the whole process is stressful.


My take away about letters of recommendation, though, is that asking for them should not be as stressful as it is for people. There are really two types of letter writers: 1) the professor type – those of us who write dozens of these per year, and 2) those who are in a position of authority (boss/manager, supervisor), who are appropriate to ask for a letter, but who rarely get asked.

Either way – don’t fret it. Letters of recommendation are either a part of their job (in the first case) or a form of a compliment (since you are acknowledging their position of authority). I get that the potential letter writer may say ‘no’ – and this is stressful – but in my opinion (and most academics would agree here), if the potential letter writer tells you ‘no’ they really should tell you why … beyond “I’m really busy.” We are all busy. If you get the ‘busy’ answer, move on with the knowledge that this is not about you, but about someone else not managing their time appropriately. It really is part of our job as an academic to write these letters. For non-academics, they will most likely need a template on what you want the letter to cover – basically an idea of what your grad program might be looking for in an applicant that he/she can speak to.

Who to ask. For academics, the best answer here is to ask people to write you a letter who know your academic work the best. Professors that know you well are most likely to write you the strongest and clearest letters. In fact, if you had to choose between a professor who knows your work well, but is not a ‘big name’ in the field, versus someone who is a big name, but only vaguely knows you, go with the former… better yet, ask both! (Most schools will allow you to submit an extra letter.) Similarly if you are applying to grad school in Psych but have a great relationship with an English professor, that person would be a better letter writer than a Intro to Psych professor who only knows your name and grade in the class. For professional references, the advice is the same, but I would listen carefully to their answer when you ask them to write the letter. If they seem at all ambivalent (usually because they don’t know how to write a letter of recommendation), and they are not allayed by your information about what the letter entails, move on to another person.

How to ask. Be Direct. Don’t try and ‘feel out the situation’, indirectly dropping hints (“I’m applying to grad school but really don’t have many letter writers”) … Ask the letter writer a direct question like this: “I am applying to graduate school and I wanted to see if you could write a strong letter of recommendation for me.”

Notice that I wrote, a strong letter. Some letter writers will write something for you, but it will be lukewarm or vague at best. Better to open up the conversation here about what they are able to write about you. I will sometimes tell a student, “I’m happy to write you a letter, but I’ve only gotten to know you in this class of 60 people. My letter will be positive (for X, Y reasons), but it may not be as detailed as an ideal letter should be.” This of course hints at another issue – the importance of building relationships with potential letter writers – the earlier the better.

When to ask. Every letter writer is different here, but it does not hurt to bring up the specter of a letter as soon as you have developed a close enough relationship with a professor/mentor/advisor, where they have evaluated your work in a positive way. Some time after they have acknowledged your contribution or work, or once they have gotten to know you, bring up your graduate school application plan, and that you’d like to ask them for a letter at some point, “I’m planning on applying to graduate school in the fall, and applications are due in early December. When we get closer to that date I’d like to ask you for a letter of recommendation. When would be a good time for me to talk with you about that?” This allows the letter writer to start to pay more attention to you as an applicant so that they can write a strong letter. It also will make the future discussion of the letter a lot smoother. At minimum I would say give your letter writer at least a month’s notice. For academics we are often given about 2-4 weeks to peer-review a paper, and I think this is about the amount of leeway we need to fit something like this into our schedule.

One last point: make the process as easy as you can on the letter writer. Give them all of your materials in a timely manner and make a packet with each school’s information, along with your CV and your statement of purpose (even if it is in draft form). If possible have online letter requests arrive at the same time (rather than spread out over several weeks or months). Finally, when you have a place where a form needs to be filled out (name and address of the letter writer) – go ahead and fill it out for them – I can’t tell you how helpful it is when I have those things filled out.

Photo by SheffieldStar

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