Letters of Recommendation
Advice about asking for a letter of recommendation
Whenever possible, make an appointment with your professor/recommender so that you can ask for the recommendation in person. This is not always possible in the summer, but see if they can meet to discuss this. (It always goes better.) If it’s not possible, that’s fine, you should then craft a polite email to request your reference, but be sure you truly ask and don’t convey a sense of expectation that they will provide it. You should say something like: “I’m wondering whether you feel you could provide me with a strong letter of reference for X fellowship?” Make sure they know the due date and where to send it.
Send the referee the following information:
Approach potential recommenders first as advisers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Discuss your larger interests and goals. Ask for their advice about potential projects, reading, courses of study, graduate programs. . . .These conversations will be invaluable in themselves, but they will also allow you to judge who is likely to be your most enthusiastic recommenders; these meetings will also allow those who write for you to compose better informed and more personally engaged letters.
Ask someone who knows you well and who will be able to discuss in specific detail what distinguishes you. Recommenders should be able to discuss varied aspects of your academic, work and community activities. Ideally, two of your recommenders should be tenured faculty with whom you have taken more than one course (preferably an advanced course), or who have served as mentors, such as working on a research project or in a laboratory setting. Supervisors or administrators in a community/volunteer activity can also speak to your commitment and achievements.
Ask well in advance of the deadline. While for many recommenders four weeks may be adequate, it is often helpful to consult to see how much lead-time is needed. This is especially true for letters for major fellowships and for letters to be written over the summer.
Ask: “Do you feel you know me (or my academic record, my leadership qualities) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for the X opportunity?” You’ve now given the professor the opportunity to decline gracefully. If the answer is “no,” don’t push. This inquiry may be done via email–ONLY if you already have an established relationship with the potential recommender. If you do not, then it is very important to ask your potential recommender in person. This should be done in an office hour, not in public (after your class meeting has ended, for instance).
Schedule an appointment with your recommenders to discuss the scholarship, its selection criteria, your most recent and commendable activities, and to suggest what each recommender might emphasize. (You may want to let your recommenders know who your other recommenders are, so that they can write letters that complement rather than repeat one another.)
Finally, be sure to write your recommenders a note of thanks and let them know what happens.