Letters of Recommendation FAQs
By Henry Dyson
Q: Who should I ask?
A: First check the specific requirements of the opportunity to which you’re applying. The Truman Scholarship, for example, requires one letter each discussing the applicant’s leadership, service, and intellectual ability/curiosity. Ideally these letter writers should be able to talk about the experiences discussed in the applicant’s leadership, service, and graduate school essays respectively. Many other applications have similar requirements; others leave the choice of letter writers completely open. In general, you want to select writers who can help you emphasize the key themes of your application, preferably based on direct experience and observation of your character, abilities/potential, and accomplishments. The letter writers do not need to all say the same thing. You should pick a “symphony” of different voices who can “sing harmony” with the most important themes in your application.
Q: Does position title or seniority matter?
A: The most important factor in an effective letter is the level of detail with which the writer is able to discuss the applicant’s qualifications and “fit” for this particular opportunity, preferably on the basis of direct experience. A short, pro forma letter that gives the applicant an endorsement without specific details will usually not be effective no matter the title of the writer. Better to ask someone with a less impressive title who will writer in greater detail. That being said, one thing that letter writers often do is make comparisons to emphasize an applicant’s potential. In these comparisons scope does matter. “The best undergraduate researcher that I’ve had in 25 years at U-M, Berkeley, and Brown” written by a tenured professor will carry more weight than “the best undergraduate researcher I’ve had a U-M” written by a PhD candidate or young assistant professor with only 2-3 years of experience. In general, then, the best strategy is to ask the person with the most scope for comparison who is willing and able to write about your qualifications in great detail based on direct experience. Also keep in mind that different letter writers play different roles in an application packet. If you have a GSI or young professor who can write about you in great detail, you may balance this with another letter from a tenured professor with more scope for comparison, but less direct experience.
Q: How do I form relationships with potential letter writers?
A: Make relationship-building a habit. You never know who may be a potential letter writer. Attend office hours and departmental colloquia. Be authentic and genuine. Talk with faculty about their research. Ask professionals about their own career development and be open to advice. Make it a goal to form a relationship with at least one potential letter writer each semester. Check back with potential letter writers occasionally, whether in person or by email, to update them on your progress. Think of and present yourself as a “junior colleague” - in other words, someone who isn’t quite a colleague yet, but will be some day.
Q: When should I ask?
A: At least a month in advance is standard etiquette. In certain circumstances, if you know the letter writer well or if she/he has written for you in the past, you can ask for a letter on short notice. You might want to talk with an advisor about how to do this appropriately so that you don’t burn bridges. Also keep in mind that during breaks or holidays - especially summer when many writers may be out of the country - you should give potential letter writers more notice.
Q: How should I ask?
A: The key question is, “Do you think that you can write a strong letter of recommendation for this application?” If someone wants to back out of writing a letter, let them. The alternative may be half-hearted letter that does more harm than good. In asking for a letter, you should provide the writer with all the information she/he needs to make a decision about how strong the letter will be: (a) the name of the scholarship, fellowship, and/or program; (b) a link to more information about the program and any special considerations, (c) an updated resume and transcript, and most importantly (d) some idea of how you’re hoping her/his letter will contribute to your overall application. After very briefly explaining how this opportunity fits into overall plans, you might say: “I’m asking you to write a letter because I’m hoping that you can help me emphasize…” or “...can talk about …” or “...can help me tell the story of…”. If the application requires specific letters talking about leadership, service, etc. then let the writer know that her/his letter will play that role.
Q: How many letters is too many?
A: The truth is that writers recycle letters. Once we have a basic letter for a student, we adapt it to meet the needs of each application (e.g. by placing greater or lesser emphasis on certain aspects of our interaction with the applicant or adapting the language to the specific opportunity). Of course this also takes time, as does the mechanical process of uploading letters to multiple online applications. Always keep this in mind and make the process as easy as possible for the writer by providing materials, links, and reminders. Always express gratitude for the work. There is a limit - you don’t want to be frivolous in your applications. But don’t pass up genuinely good opportunities without talking to someone first just because you’re afraid of asking for another letter.
Q: Should I ask in person or by email?
A: There are legitimate differences of opinion and, as in all cases, in depends on your relationship with the writer. Some advisors think the invitation should always come in person, if possible. However, I sometimes prefer to be asked initially by email - especially if the request comes from a student with whom I haven’t had contact for a while. I want to sit and think about the letter that I might be able to write before responding, without someone in the room expecting an answer. If you do ask by email, provide all the necessary information (see above) and offer to meet the writer in person, if desired, to talk in greater detail about your application and what the letter might contain. Also be sure to use excellent etiquette in your email. Address the writer by her/his formal title until you are invited to use first names (or have clearly developed an informal relationship). Make sure your emails are concise, courteous, and that you’ve checked spelling and grammar - in other words, represent you as professional.
Q: What if I’ve asked someone by email but haven’t received a response?
A: This is a tricky situation because you don’t want to wait too long for a response and then have to ask another potential writer with very short notice. It is a good reason to start asking for letters well in advance of the one month deadline. If you are on campus, you can stop by the writer’s office or contact her/his department for suggestions about how to get in touch.
Q: What if the writer asks me to write a first draft?
A: This is a big red flag. Talk with an advisor about how to handle this situation. Many programs and scholarships will consider this a violation of academic integrity. Some letter writers are legitimately busy and may ask you for materials to include in a letter. You can provide a list of key accomplishments, reminders of details (e.g. your interactions with the writer), and points that you’re hoping the letter writer can emphasize. I suggest providing such information as bullet points, not in prose form.
Q: How should I remind letter writers about an upcoming deadline?
A: Provided they are not too frequent and politely phrased, most letter writers appreciate the occasional reminder of an upcoming deadline. One polite way to do this is to provide the writer with updates about your own application. “Now that I’ve finished my personal statement, I wanted to provide you with the latest draft. Please let me know if you need anything else before the ... deadline.” This will put you back at the top of the writer’s inbox.
Q: Should I write a thank you note?
A: Yes, absolutely. You should let the writer know the outcome of the application either way. This is not only good etiquette, but an opportunity for you to express genuine gratitude for what the writer has meant to your academic and professional career. I don’t mind telling you that I keep all my notes and read them occasionally to remember former students and remind myself why I do this!