Hi all. If you are reading this, you are probably a past or current student of mine, and you are interesting in approaching me for a letter of recommendation (LOR).
First, let me say: this is a totally normal part of my job, and a formal part of our student/professor relationship. You are not asking me for anything for anything exorbitant, and there is no need to feel like you’re imposing. This is part of my gig, and it’s a part I enjoy. So don’t feel bad for asking, okay?
But this whole process will go a lot smoother if we’re explicit about what I need to write you a great LOR. Please look through the material below to get things going and to know what to expect.
Step 1: Ask me.
Let me give some helpful suggestions on how to make this process work.
Many people give students the advice to ask for LORs in person, either at a private meeting or at office hours. This advice is pretty terrible, at least for asking me.
As you know, most of my office hours have 20-50 students in attendance, and it is logistically hard to ask for a LOR in this setting. So students often try to schedule a private meeting with me to ask for a letter. That means I tend to get a lot of emails like this:
Hi Dr. Cvrkel,
Can we please set up a private appointment? I am free at 3:30 on Tuesday. Thanks.
Okay, this is hard for me, for a few reasons.
First, I have no idea why you are asking to set up a meeting. Do you want to talk about a LOR? Your grade in my class? Going into the bioethics field? Your multi-level marketing business? Something else entirely? I HAVE NO IDEA. This is weird and slightly disquieting.
Second, I teach hundreds of students a year, and between teaching+research+meetings+bathing, I don’t have a lot of time to spare. I may feel the need to talk with you before writing a LOR, but if that’s the case, I will need to prepare some questions for that meeting. Having one meeting where you ask me for a letter (but don’t yet have ready the materials I need), then having ANOTHER meeting to talk about what I want to talk about, well, this costs me more hours than I have.
So don’t do that.
I should say, many of my professor friends find this blank appointment request as creepy as I do, so while I am only speaking for myself here, please consider not doing this with other professors either. At the very least, explain in your opening email that you will be asking for a LOR and you’d like to get together to discuss it.
For me, do this:
Write me an email containing the following information.
— Tell me you are asking me for a LOR
— Tell me what the LOR is for (med schools/law schools/grad programs/scholarships/etc all require different kinds of letters)
— Tell me the deadline by which you’ll require the LOR
— Tell me what service you’ll be using to submit your LOR
— Remind me which class(es) of mine you were in, and which quarter(s)
— Remind me of any identifying features of yours, so I can remember which student you were (I will remember your face+paper topic+what we chatted about at office hours forever, but man I’m terrible with names)
— Ask me if I’d like to meet with you (if I know you well from class, this meeting probably won’t be necessary)
— Let me know what you’d like MY letter to focus on in regards to you as a candidate
When you send this email, please attach your unofficial transcript, paper from my class(es), resume or CV, and any personal statement you’ve written (and this does not have to be a finished/polished draft – anything helps!).
A brief note about what I mean by “what you’d like MY letter to focus on in regards to you as a candidate.” A good letter helps the admissions/awards committee get to know who you are beyond your paper identity. It adds depth to the portrait that your grades and test scores paint. Think about what makes you special, and think particularly about how that specialness might not be obvious in the paper portrait. Did you get really rough grades that one quarter because your father died? Did you accomplish all that you accomplished in circumstances that most of your peers didn’t have to face? Did you choose your academic path because of a set of experiences that shape you?
That’s the kind of thing I can talk about in my letter, in addition to talking about the particular experiences I’ve had with you. It is also helpful for me to know how my letter fits into your larger letter package. Are your other letters from people in your wet lab, who know all about you as a scientist but perhaps less about you as a person? Then I will help fill in the gaps. Are your other letters from humanities professors who have seen your writing and aptitude with ideas, but don’t really know much about your science chops? I will talk about you performance with my stem cell bio material. The best letter I can write for you captures parts of you that might not come to light in other places. Help me help you.
Step 2: Wait for my answer.
So as I’m sure you know (as one of my current or former students), I get a lot of email. So much email. And I get through it as quickly as I can, but it might take me a few days to get to your email. But rest assured, I will! If you haven’t heard back from me in a week, it might have gotten eaten by my spam filter or lost in the void, so PLEASE RESEND. (I promise you aren’t annoying me by doing that.)
Now, I’ve got good news and bad news on this front.
Let’s start with the bad news, and get it out of the way. The bad news is that I don’t say yes to all LOR requests. There are basically two circumstances where I say no to this request.
- When I feel like I cannot write you a strong and positive letter
- When my schedule will not permit me to write you a strong and positive letter by the deadline you require
Sometimes the second circumstance happens and it’s outside of everyone’s control – another letter writer backed out, a last-minute decision to apply this cycle, whatever. And sometimes that’s okay, and I can still make it happen. But sometimes I’ve already committed to writing a large number of letters for a particular cycle and I can’t make it happen in time. I will be upfront with you if this is the case. You can help avoid this, however, by asking as far in advance as possible.
The first circumstance has happened, but it is rare. I promise to be upfront about this as well.
But that leads us to the good news.
I don’t believe in writing less-than-positive letters. If I agree to write you a LOR, you can know for certain it’s because I fully support your candidacy in whatever you are applying for, and I will do everything in my power to communicate that to the people reading the letter. I will not write a letter that is not strongly positive and endorsing of your skill, character, and aptitude.
I will get back to you and let you know my decision, as well as whether I will require a meeting or any additional material.
Step 3: Send me a reminder email 7 days before your LOR is due.
If I’ve already submitted your LOR, obviously you can skip this step. But frequently I will write your letter shortly after you ask me, and then set it aside for a few weeks before returning to it, in order for me to edit it into its strongest and most comprehensive form. A reminder 7 days before your due-date is a helpful way to remind me to finish the polishing step and submit.
Step 4: Confirm submission was successful.
Let me know when your service communicates to me that the letter has been successfully received. If I don’t hear from you before the deadline (and I know I have submitted it), I will assume that something has gone wrong on the service’s end, and I will resubmit.
Step 5: Let me know how it goes!
I love hearing about the paths that my students take, so when you get into the program of your dreams, drop a note so I can celebrate for you!