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.
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.
Ask the Right People
The best recommender varies somewhat depending on the application, but is it 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, & Not by Email
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.
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.
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.