Updated: Aug 11, 2022
Tis the season of recommendation letters. As the Spring semester winds down, you may be applying to an internship, a summer job, or even study abroad for next year. These exciting opportunities can sometimes scare off students simply because they require a recommendation letter. What professor should you ask? What if they say no? How do you make sure you get a strong letter? Well, the Hub is here for you to demystify the process!
Every year, I see students torture themselves over how to ask for a recommendation letter. There IS some etiquette in the process, but also some long-term planning can really simplify things too. Here are 10 key tips to make sure that you get great recommendation letters.
Don't sweat it too much-- Profs expect to write recommendations! Profs field these requests all the time, and it is part of their job. You aren't asking for an outrageous favor. However, sometimes a professor may tell you no, simply because they don't know you that well or they don't have time for a tight deadline. If that's the case, don't take it as a judgement on you. But also don't feel awkward about asking!
Pick a prof who knows you and your work well. Your recommenders should ideally know you well-- you've taken multiple classes with them or you've stayed in touch after the class was over. One common reason that a prof might say no to writing a letter is simply because they don't feel like they don't have a strong sense of you as a person. While that rejection may sting, know that the prof is also looking out for you-- most profs won't say yes unless they feel like they can enthusiastically endorse your application.
Think about whether you need a prof's expertise. Sometimes you have a great relationship with a prof, but they are totally outside of your major. That may mean the prof will make a good recommender for something like study abroad but not for a highly-specific grad school program. You can ask a prof if they think they are a good fit for a particular application, and they can strategize with you. Also, as you advance further into your major, make sure that you have good relationships with core faculty in your field.
Make yourself memorable. In the long term, you probably will know who you want to be a recommender (especially for grad school or post-college applications) long before you actually apply. So in the meantime, make yourself memorable to that instructor! You want to make sure that the professor has a strong impression of your intellect and work ethic even years after your enrollment in their course. Personally, one mistake I made in college was assuming that my good grades served as my reputation with profs (and, no surprise, I got turned down by some profs because I never talked in class!). In reality, active engagement with a course is actually MUCH more important than your grades. So be sure to show your enthusiasm for a course-- speak up in class, go to optional activities, and (this is a BIG one) go to the prof's office hours to talk more about the topic and your course projects. Those are the moments that profs will write about in their letters.
Share your goals. A good recommendation letter will support your application by reaffirming your own arguments about yourself. So be sure that your prof knows how you are pitching yourself. Share any application materials you write, and also talk with your prof about your own goals. They may have advice about how to strategize your application too.
Know what the application requires. When you ask a prof for a recommendation, often their first question will be about exactly what they need to do. So be sure you know ahead of time what you are asking for! Whether you ask in-person or over email, be sure that you have the answers to common questions like: When is the due date? Does the application require a formal letter, or does the prof just fill out a form? Where does the prof submit their letter? (Hint: these days, it is almost never the case that a prof is supposed to send their letter directly to YOU). Knowing these details right away will help you get a straight answer about whether a prof will be able to take on the task.
Give the recommender plenty of time. The biggest mistake students make is asking for recommendations at the last minute (and by "last minute" I mean, within a week of the deadline). Not only can this short notice come off as a bit unprofessional, it also can mean profs need to turn you down simply because they can't squeeze the task into their busy schedule. Ideally, you should ask a prof at least a month before any deadline, or even earlier if the application requires a tailored recommendation letter.
Waive your right to read the letter. This can sound counterintuitive, since many grad school applications give you the option to read your rec letters upon submission. However, the unspoken norm is that you should always waive this right. Allowing letters to be confidential serves as a sign of the trust you have in your relationship with your recommenders. Committees take a confidential or secret recommendation more seriously because the recommender is free to be fully honest.
You CAN remind us about deadlines, but don't overdo it. Many students stress about whether their profs have actually submitted recommendations or not. It is totally ok to (politely!) email us with a reminder that a deadline is approaching. A good rule of thumb is to email a prof a reminder A) a week before the deadline then B) the day before the deadline. Also know that profs are just as likely as you are to submit things right before midnight, so once you are sure the deadline is on a prof's radar, then leave them to it.
Keep us posted on any news! Profs love to hear updates from you, even years after you've last touched base. So do reach out about any updates-- if your application was accepted, if you have a new life plan, if you want to try again. We want to know how it all turned out!