Quite often when students have to apply for a position requiring a letter of recommendation they don’t know how to proceed. I was very uncomfortable asking professors for what felt like a favor. My viewpoint, which is shared by most faculty members, is that providing letters of recommendation is part of our job and if a student (or colleague) requests one we’ll happily provide it. As long as you follow a few guidelines, professors should be happy to provide a letter of recommendation for you.
Decide You’re Asking The Best Person
It’s a bit of an uncomfortable situation, but I’ve had students who did quite poorly in my class and never talked to me one-on-one ask me for a letter of recommendation. I provided them, but warned the student that it would mostly be factual statements such as which term they took a class from me. The students readily accepted that, so I assume they didn’t have anyone to write a more positive letter for them.
You want to get letters of recommendation from people you’re confident will say good things about you. This could be the professor of a class you got a very high mark in, someone you talked to about the subject on multiple occasions, someone you’re done work for as a research or teaching assistant, or someone who you know socially.
I usually ask people if they’re willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation or a good letter of recommendation. If they show any hesitancy, I ask someone else.
If you’re on good terms with someone who has a relationship with the person or place you’re applying to, they would be an excellent choice as a letter writer.
Give Them Lots of Time
Professors are quite protective of their time. It is a TERRIBLE idea to wait until the last minute and ask for a letter of recommendation for the next day. I’ve had students expect virtually instant turn-around from me, and being irritated isn’t a good way to sit down to write a recommendation. When you’ve decided you’re going to apply somewhere, asking professors to write you letters of recommendation should be one of the first things you do. Give them as much lead time as possible. Over a month isn’t unreasonable. They might not do it until the evening before the deadline, but still give them as much time as possible.
Make It As Easy As Possible For Them To Write
It’s a good idea to send copies of your CV, which class and term you studied with them, what mark you received from them, a link to the position or school you’re applying to, and a reminder about who you are – maybe something you talked to them about to jog their memory.
I usually sent very polite reminders occasionally as the deadline approached. All of my letter writers seemed to appreciate this.
Don’t Expect Or Ask Them To Lie For You
It should go without saying, but someone writing a letter of recommendation isn’t going to lie about you just because you really, really want the job or acceptance. It would be a deeply offensive thing to ask a faculty member to do and I can’t imagine many of them would be willing to do this.
Understand That You Probably Won’t See The Letter
In order for the letter writer to be able to be as frank as possible, usually the letters are submitted without you seeing them. This is either by the writer mailing it or submitting it online themselves or by providing the reference in a sealed envelope – this used to be more common than it is now.
I’ve had students ask me for a letter of recommendation that they just want me to write for them as a “To Whom It May Concern:” I imagine they think it will be useful to have to submit in the future. It simply isn’t done this way, and having a copy of such a thing wouldn’t do you any good – any schools or positions would want to be in contact with the recommender directly.
This, of course, may mean that your reference is saying you aren’t any good. If you have any fears of this, don’t use them as a reference! I had a supervisor who had done Nobel caliber work – he had mentored 2 people who had won Nobel prizes and had been at this level in his own work. When he wrote letters of recommendation, he felt it was reasonable to compare the person he was writing the letter for to all his past supervisees, INCLUDE THE TWO WHO HAD WON NOBEL PRIZES! Clearly, this led to very mediocre letters of recommendation and none of us asked him for a recommendation if it could be avoided.
Have you had problems getting letters of recommendation? How did you eventually get them?