The Fear Factor
Nothing strikes terror in a typical student’s heart more than the prospect of approaching a professor for a letter of recommendation—for an internship, scholarship, or graduate school application. Even students with top grades are nervous. Let’s be honest; it is scary. What if the professor says “no”? What if the professor does not view you as recommendation-worthy? Fear of rejection is a natural feeling in this scenario.
However, as Susan Jeffers urges in “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” (a runaway bestseller in the late 1980’s), do not let the fear stop you from action. And do not procrastinate until the request is so late that it is truly an imposition. There are many aspects of the recommendation-requesting scenario that you can control to reduce the fear factor and increase the likelihood of a strong endorsement.
The Fundamentals of Recommendation-Requesting
Allow at least 2 months prior to the deadline for the application for graduate school. Anything less than 6 weeks is an imposition. For certain internships and small scholarships, a shorter turnaround time may be necessary, but always give the letter-writer as much time as you possibly can. Asking potential recommenders 3-6 months ahead if they would be willing to write a letter gives them a chance to get used to the idea. Then you circle back when the details are available.
Ask the right people.
The best recommender varies somewhat depending on the application, but it is always best to ask someone who knows you well. A professor who taught you in several courses, or served as your research mentor, or who hired you as an undergraduate teaching assistant will know you well enough to write a letter on your behalf for graduate or professional school. If you are applying for a job as a camp counselor, a staff person in Residential Life who supervised your work as an RA could be an excellent choice.
Ask in person, face to face, and not by e-mail.
E-mail is OK to set up an in-person appointment or a telephone conference. But the “ask” itself needs to be in person if at all possible, with telephone as backup. There are many reasons for this, including: (1) it emphasizes how important the letter is to you; (2) it gives you an opportunity to provide context and answer questions; (3) it gives the letter writer a chance to remember you. Let me be blunt: many faculty members are offended by a request to write a letter of reference that comes in the form of an offhand email such as the following:
Hey Dr. Jones,
How are you? Long time no see. I’m writing because I am applying for a competitive internship at NASA and I need a letter of recommendation. Can you do this for me?
Give the letter-writer everything they need to do the job.
The letter writer needs, in writing for reference later:
1.Facts about you
2.Facts about the position or program you are applying for
3.Facts about exactly what you want him or her to do and when
Often it is helpful to provide a copy of your resume and your unofficial transcript. The transcript reminds them what courses you took with them and the grades you earned and gives an overall picture of your academic program. If the application includes a “personal statement,” it is very helpful to provide a draft to the recommender.
It is critical to provide the logistical details; it is an on-line reference, is there a form to complete, and where do they send the letter? Your goal is to make the process as simple and painless as possible for your recommender.
Be clear about any deadlines.
Build a “fudge factor” into the deadline you give the recommender. If possible, suggest a deadline that is several weeks earlier than the final “drop dead” deadline. Be very, very clear about the deadline and then send gentle “nudge” e-mails to remind the letter-writer that the deadline is 2 weeks away, 1 week away, etc. Then, if the deadline is a few days away and you do not have confirmation that the letter has been produced and submitted, go to see the professor in person and courteously inquire about the status.
Send a thank you in writing to any person who has written a letter on your behalf.
An e-mail is good; a hand-written note is even better.
INSIDER TIP!! READ THIS!!!
You must build a relationship and a rapport with a professor before you ask for a letter of recommendation! This is why participating in class, asking questions after class, and visiting during office hours is vitally important. If you ask a professor you have never talked to previously for a letter of recommendation, you may well get a “no” for an answer!
Graduate School Application Guide, Career Services Website
Letter of Recommendation Guide, Undergraduate Research Website
Extra Credit Discussion Question:
Are you nervous about asking professors for letters of recommendation? Do you feel the fear and do it anyway? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!