Dos and Don'ts for Requesting a Grad School Recommendation Letter

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A recommendation letter is a critical component of your graduate school application that is dependent on other people—your professors—but that doesn't mean it is out of your control. How you request a letter influences the likelihood of a positive or negative response as well as the quality of the recommendation you will receive if the faculty member agrees.

The Best Ways to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

There are plenty of do's and don'ts for obtaining the best recommendation letter possible but how you make the initial request is often most important. Do the following three things when bringing up the topic of a letter.

  • Ask in person: Asking for any favor by email is impersonal and this is a very big favor. Do your professor the courtesy of formally making your request.
  • Make an appointment: Arrange an appointment and explain that you wish to discuss your plans for applying to graduate school. This gives your professor time to consider whether they feel able to help you by writing a letter before the meeting even happens.
  • Give plenty of advance notice: Ask for the letter as far in advance as possible and don't spring its deadline on a faculty member at the last minute. Tell your professor the due date ahead of time so they can make an informed decision about whether they can follow through.

Once you have done all of these things, be prepared to discuss why you believe the chosen faculty member is a good candidate to write the letter of your behalf. Your professor will want to know why you value their perspective in particular before making their decision about whether to help. If they agree to writing the letter, move forward with the process by giving them what they need.

Always take "no" for an answer and don't make a professor repeat it. If a faculty member declines to write your letter, they probably have a good reason and you shouldn't push. Similarly, if a professor seems hesitant but agrees, consider asking someone else. A lukewarm letter of recommendation can be worse than no letter at all.

What Your Professor Needs

The professor that will write your letter of recommendation needs two things from you to succeed: time and information. Your job is to support your professor until the letter is submitted.

Time

Give the faculty member enough time to write a great letter without having to rearrange their schedule too much to accommodate you. Forcing a faculty member to rush is disrespectful and will likely result in an average or mediocre letter. When every recommendation letter an admissions committee receives is stellar, an average letter will hurt your application.

Ask at least a month before a letter's due date so that your professor can plan accordingly for the time it will take to write. After all, writing a letter of recommendation isn't easy. Understand that they might submit it just before its deadline no matter how much time you give them—this is fine (you have probably procrastinated work for them before too).

Information

Give the professor all of the information they will need to write a thoughtful letter, including academic materials such as transcripts and essays and personal information about your goals. Talk to them about what type of degree you seek, programs to which you are applying, how you arrived at your school choices, what you hope to gain from graduate study, and your future aspirations.

Make this whole affair convenient for your professor by being neat and organized. Place all documentation in a physical and/or electronic folder and clearly label each item—don't forget any relevant links or email addresses for online applications. Clip related forms and supporting documentation together to make their lives easier and attach the deadline somewhere to the folder. Your professor will appreciate not having to dig for information.

Other Steps You Can Take to Ensure Success

Ask for input and overall advice on your whole application if the opportunity presents itself. If a faculty member is kind enough to offer to review your other admissions materials, take them up on it and use their advice to make improvements.

If a due date is approaching and the letter hasn't been submitted, provide a single gentle reminder of the upcoming deadline, then back off. Your chosen professor is perfectly capable of getting the job done but it is easy to forget when things are due.