Recommendation Letters 101

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

I was that student who did not really talk to professors. There were several reasons.

  1. I was extremely shy and intimidated by professors.

  2. I worked too many jobs just to pay for school. I had no time for extra interactions. I was usually on my way to or from work.

  3. In engineering school, had one too many negative experiences with professors. I did not want to repeat them.

So what do you do? You want to go to graduate school, apply for a scholarship or have a summer research experience? First, you have to get past and get over everything in that list at the top of this blog. Your future goals and career are too important so you have to come out of your shell, find the time, and get over past hurts. By any means, that are ethical, do what you need to in order to be successful. I like to call this the four R's: Relationship, Responsibility, Respect and Regards.


Relationship

Build a relationship with at least two of your professors and/or advisors. Ideally, it would be in classes or activities that you enjoyed.

  1. Make time to go to office hours. Ask the professor about their day or stay to chat beyond classwork to make an impression.

  2. Come to class early or stay late to ask questions to show you are interested in learning.

  3. Greet professors when you pass them in the hallway.

  4. Sit in front of the class and be respectful and engaged. Raise your hand to answer questions.

  5. Ask to do independent study, research or additional readings or discussions with the faculty member.

  6. Stop by the professor's office to say hello and share a little about yourself like future career plans, interests, etc.

  7. Join extracurricular activities and get to know the advisors.

Now that you have laid the groundwork for building the relationship, how do you ask for the letter? This entire list is based upon being responsible for the process and respectful of the professor's time.


Respect and Responsiblity

It is very important to be respectful of the professor's time, they are doing you a favor. Also, it is your responsibility to make sure you have everything organized and in order. It makes it much harder on a faculty member when you don't have all the details to make their task easier.

  1. Ask the faculty member for the recommendation letter at least a month in advance. They are very busy and it takes time to write a letter.

  2. Send out a reminder about a week before the due date. Faculty are very busy and many things slip through the cracks.

  3. Be respectful and don't apply to more than 5 graduate programs, research experiences or scholarships.

  4. Give the faculty member a spreadsheet with all organizations that you need a letter for including the address, website, due date. If it is a graduate program, list which degree program.

  5. Provide a statement or purpose, transcript, resume and any other sample materials to help them write you a strong letter. For example, research projects, papers or assignments.

  6. Answer the following questions to help the faculty member remember you and write the letter.

  7. What is your name, year, and major? When did you graduate?

  8. For what are you applying (e.g., scholarship, graduate school, summer research experience)?

  9. How long have I known you (years and months), and what is my relationship to you (instructor, research advisor, etc.)?

  10. For what classes have I had you, what final grades did I assign you, and how did you distinguish yourself in my classes?

  11. How would you describe yourself? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Your response to this question is very important to me, so the more details the better.

  12. What are some of your academic and nonacademic accomplishments?

  13. What makes me particularly qualified to write a letter for you?

  14. What makes you particularly qualified for this position/honor/award/program?

  15. What are your long term goals and will this position/honor/award help? If so, how?

  16. Additional comments (REU's, summer research, interesting jobs, hobbies, etc.)?

  17. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being needs improvement and 5 being excellent for the following personal characteristics.

  • integrity

  • written communication

  • oral communication

  • working independently on projects

  • working on teams, interpersonal relationships

  • maturity

  • reliability

  • motivation

  • integrity

  • self discipline

  • judgment

  • self-confidence

  • problem solving

  • technical ability

  • academic potential

  • leadership potential

  • empathy

Lastly, be prepared that a faculty member may say no if they don't know you well enough. This means always have a backup person to ask.

Also, only ask faculty who have had some type of relationship with you in class or an organization. It is not appropriate to ask people you only now in passing. A recommendation letter is a very personal document and requires the writer to have some familiarity with you as a person. See the type of questions asked in the previous list as a reference. Ask yourself, can the person I asked answer these questions?


Regards

Send the professor your regards. I have always appreciated a student who understood the amount of time it takes to write a thoughtful and thorough recommendation letter. Especially, when the student applied to multiple schools, programs or came back multiple times. A simple thank you note or email can go a long way toward building good will. Especially, if you may need a letter again in the future. In the thank you note, let the writer know if you received the scholarship, did the research experience or got in the degree program. We like to know that our hard work paid off.


I have students who come back years after graduation because they decided to go to graduate school or apply for government security clearance. It is a lot easier if I have letters on file for you already or remember how you behaved after your last request. I sometimes stick thank you notes on my file cabinet or corkboard. When I have a particularly trying day, these can really lift your spirits.


Here is another great read about this topic: https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-ask-for-a-recommendation/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in


Carlotta A. Berry, PhD #NoireSTEMinist

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