Asking for a letter of recommendation?

Writing letters of recommendation and serving as a reference for former and current students is a part of my job – you don’t need to feel that you’re imposing when you ask me for a letter! Here are some guidelines that can help make sure that you give me what I need to be able to assess whether I can write for you and then, if I agree to do a letter, that I can do it well.

Can I write you a strong letter?

If you are applying to study abroad, generally if you have taken a class with me and done steady work – normally earning a B, attending class regularly, and turning in work in a timely way – I will be able to recommend you, since those letters don’t require me to have much detail about you.

If you are applying for a non-academic job, similar criteria apply. Please remember that it is frequently better to have a reference for jobs from someone who has supervised you at a previous job, because I will be unable to speak to anything but your academic performance.

If you are applying for graduate school, normally I should be familiar with your work, you should have been in more than one class with me, and we should have had reasonably in-depth conversations about your academic work in office hours. Generally, you should have received both high marks (in the A range) and good comments from me on your work.

When should you contact me?

Generally, you should submit everything that I will need to write you a strong letter at least two weeks before it is due. This means that you should ask me if I will be able to write a letter 3-4 weeks ahead of the due date. That way, if I am not able to write a recommendation for you you can approach other profs. I am occasionally able to meet last-minute requests, and it is fine to ask me for a letter with less lead-time, but you should not count on it.

What materials should you send?

After I have agreed to write for you (even if you have already sent me some of this in your initial request), please send the following:

  1. A list of the programs or funding opportunities to which you’re applying, noting the deadlines for each and whether there are specific forms that I will need to fill out.
  2. Your draft cover letter, and statement of purpose or research proposal.
  3. A list of the classes you took with me, when they were, and what marks you received in them. If you have copies of papers you wrote for me along with my comments on them that is useful, too.
  4. Copies of your unofficial transcripts.
  5. A short summation of your work outside of the classroom – activities, achievements, passions – that could help me write the parts of many funding and grad school applications that increasingly ask references to speak to the “leadership capacity” of students.
  6. Anything else that you think will help me write the best possible letter for you.

I also welcome reminders as the deadlines approach to make sure that I’ve submitted recs in a timely way.


**thanks to James Rowe and Kathryn Norlock for modeling faqs like this one!