Some Recommendations on Recommendations
Letters of recommendation play a major role in applications for graduate school, scholarships and fellowships, internships, summer and study abroad experiences, and employment. As a student, you will probably need to request letters many times in the course of your academic career, and the (admittedly very detailed!) suggestions on this page are designed to help make the entire process go as smoothly as possible both for you and for the faculty members who are writing on your behalf.
You will want to begin by selecting your potential recommenders. The first questions you should ask yourself are not "Which of my professors like me the best?" or "Whose classes did I get the best grades in?" Rather, you should ask "What skills, abilities, or achievements do the evaluators of my application want to know about?" and then follow that up with "Which of my professors is able to discuss those skills, abilities, and achievements in the most detail based upon my own attitude, behavior, and performance?"
The answers to these questions may surprise you. As they suggest, your recommenders should ideally be selected by the type of work you have done with them, as well as by that work's quality: even an A+ in biology does not necessarily mean that your biology professor should write a recommendation in support of your application for a Congressional internship. Under certain circumstances, a choice like this can imply only entry-level acquaintance with the field of your desired endeavor: if you are deeply interested in politics, for example, you may have had the opportunity to excel in a political science, government, or even US history course, as well as that biology class.
Before approaching a recommender, you should know as much as possible about the opportunity for which you intend to apply. You will need to familiarize yourself with not only the deadlines, but also the precise eligibility and application requirements. This may require a substantial investment of time on your part (particularly if the 'opportunity' is a graduate-school program or a major fellowship), but ultimately it will save both energy and goodwill: you should not expect your recommenders to determine for themselves whether you are a viable applicant.
Under the best circumstances, you will have active academic relationships with your recommenders, and they will be aware of the opportunities you intend to apply for almost as soon as you discover them. Assuming, however, that at least some of your potential recommenders may be professors whom you do not always see on a regular basis, here are some timing guidelines.
It is important at the outset to understand the amount of time required to craft a strong letter of recommendation. For a first-time letter, a faculty member will likely need to review not only the materials you submit in support of the immediate application (see below), but also his or her own records from courses you have taken, papers you may have submitted, or even past email exchanges. What your recommender is looking for is your "story" as his or her student. Your recommender is also recalling and selecting particular anecdotes that demonstrate your academic abilities, leadership qualities, independence, work ethic, cooperative skills, and personality. This process requires significant effort and reflection; when the time needed to write up the findings in a rhetorically effective form and produce the final printed or electronic product is added, a really good letter can require four to five hours of work, and sometimes more.
Therefore, in timing your request for a letter, earlier is always better. Six weeks, or even more, before the due date of an application is a good time frame within which to inquire. This is especially the case if this is the first time you are asking a faculty member to write for you.
Less than two weeks in advance of a due date is within the bounds of "emergency." If a faculty member has never written for you before, you should be open to the possibility that he or she may have to deny your request simply on the grounds of timing.
If a given faculty member has already completed or updated a letter for you within the same academic year and for the same general goal (e.g. a different internship, another academic job, another graduate school), a two-week emergency window for a surprise opportunity may be permissible depending upon the recommender's immediate schedule, but this is not a privilege that should be exercised more than about once per year. Too many "rush jobs" may negatively affect the quality of your letters, by not allowing even the most sympathetic recommenders sufficient time to prepare their most detailed work.
"Rush jobs" should also be reserved only for applications for which you are clearly an exceptionally strong candidate. If you do not have the proper background for a given opportunity, or even just the necessary time to prepare a thoughtful, detailed application, it is probably better to save your recommenders' energy (and good will!) for endeavors that are better suited to both you and your schedule.
You can probably see now why requests for multiple letters at once from the same faculty member should really be made at in-person appointments. Not only does the need for multiple letters typically indicate that you have reached an appropriate point in your studies for specialized academic and career advising, but it also represents a large investment of time and energy on your recommender's part. The best and most effective letters must be carefully adjusted by the faculty member for each of those twelve grad-school applications--there is much more to it than merely changing the address at the top.
Now that you know more about what is involved, how should you approach faculty members and ask them to write for you?
Many faculty members do not object to receiving inquiries about letters via email, but if you cannot tell whether such a request might be received well, it is always safer to visit and ask in person during office hours. It is much less desirable to approach a faculty member immediately before or after class, when his or her attention is likely to be divided and an accidental "audience" is likely to be present. Because a prospective recommender may actually need to turn down your request, it is always best to discuss it in an environment where that can be accomplished and accepted both confidentially and gracefully.
If you do choose to send an email, the initial message should contain only summary information about your proposal, rather than attachments of all of your materials. While you may be inclined to provide as much information as possible at the outset, this can come across (particularly over email) as if you are assuming the recommender will automatically agree to write for you, and you naturally do not want to give this impression.
Here, then, is a possible template for an initial request by email. Notice the inclusion of the due date, the identification of the opportunity, the offer of additional information, and the statement that the student understands if the request cannot be granted at this time:
"Dear Professor X, I am planning to apply for a position as a summer research assistant to the curator of dinosaurs at the Field Museum in Chicago. Since the application (which is due on March 21) asks that I provide background about my experiences in the natural and physical sciences, I immediately thought of the two semesters of geology lab and the summer fieldwork I completed under your supervision last year. Would it be possible for you to write me a letter of recommendation for this opportunity? I would be glad to provide you with its selection guidelines, as well as my cover letter, resume, essay, and any other information you might require. If, however, your schedule does not permit your doing this right now, I understand completely. Thank you very much for your consideration."
A potential recommender, even a faculty member whom you know well, may decline a request for a letter, whether the request is made in person or by email. The most common reasons are usually timeframe (your request came on such short notice that it could not be granted) or "fit" (the faculty member believes that his or her letter would not be the best means of supporting your candidacy for the precise opportunity at hand). If the issue is one of "fit," you may receive alternate suggestions, e.g. "Dear MyStudent, While I would be delighted to recommend you for this opportunity, I recall that you actually interned in the dinosaur section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York last year. I noticed on the website that this research assistant application asks for one and only one letter, and I would suggest that that single recommendation spot be reserved for your curatorial supervisor from the Met, who can speak much more directly to the position you are seeking. I would, however, be glad to look over your cover letter and offer some advice."
Declinations of recommendation requests should always be received gracefully, rather than being negotiated, since you may want to contact the potential recommender again in the future about a different application.
Assuming that your recommender is a good "fit" for the opportunity at hand, has time to write for you, and responds in the affirmative, it is time to give him or her the information that will be necessary for the composition of your letter. This information should, ideally, include the following:
1. Your resume or curriculum vitae, in complete, proofread, updated, and polished form--as it relates to the specific opportunity at hand.
2. A copy of your cover letter for the application, if any.
3. A copy of the essay, narrative, description, or any other prose that will be submitted as part of your application.
4. A copy of your informal transcript, if pertinent.
5. Any other information that the faculty member might request (e.g. a list of extracurricular activities, a work history, a recent paper for a course, etc.).
6. Correct and complete web links (submitted via email) for the opportunity to which you are applying.
7. A procedural summary containing the following: a reiteration of the due date for the recommendation; a note as to what format it should be presented in (hard copy, electronic, sealed and signed across the envelope flap, etc.) and whether it is to be mailed, picked up, faxed, or submitted electronically; a promise to send an email reminder one week before the deadline; an expression of willingness to talk with the faculty member in person if more information is needed; and a request that the recommender keep an electronic copy of his or her letter on file.
Once the materials are submitted, you may follow up with a reminder email to the faculty member one week before the deadline, as you have already promised to do (this promise ensures that the reminder will be both expected and welcomed). Some recommenders will let you know when they have submitted their letters, but this is not always the case.
If a graduate school, fellowship organization, or internship office contacts you and says that you are missing a letter of recommendation, what should you do?
The first step is not to panic; the second is to convey this information calmly and objectively to your recommender, e.g. "Dear Professor X, The University of Q has recently contacted me to say that it does not yet have your letter of recommendation. Would it be possible for you to check your files, and if it has not yet been sent, to fax a copy to the attention of Ms. J. Smith (555-555-5555) once it is ready? Thank you very much for your consideration." Recommenders can occasionally lose track of requests--and mail can certainly end up at the wrong destination.
In general, it is best to leave any negotiations regarding late letters between the recommender and the destination, if possible.
Make certain to tell your recommenders promptly about the outcome of all of your applications, whether they are positive or negative. This information is invaluable recompense to the faculty member for his or her work--it provides not only a sense of what the wider world is thinking and doing, but also important feedback as to the potential effect your recommender's writing may have on selection committees.
If you want to do something nice for a faculty member who has written for you, the best acknowledgement you can provide is a sincere thank-you note detailing what the person has done for your academic progress and development. Such unprompted letters can add strength to a faculty member's professional file--and they are also a very meaningful gift.