Recommendation Letters

How to Get Strong Letters of Recommendation from Professors

“We want to write you stellar letters, letters that will help move your career forward.

In a real sense, however, we don’t write your letters. You do.

You write your own letters by the reputation and relationships you build during your years in college.

When your professors sit down to type out a recommendation on official letterhead, we just do our best to record in words what you’ve already written with your actions.”

How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation

  • Jonathan Mayhew has some good advice on how to ask for a strong letter of recommendation, as does Matt Might.
    • Please read (and heed) their advice, especially about the information and updated context your professor needs.
    • As Mayhew advises, “provide your resumé and whatever other documentation you are submitting with the application (personal statement, cover letter). I don’t retain detailed notes about every student I’ve ever taught, so I need to take cues from your own intentions.”
  • Almost every recommendation requires me to state how long I have known you. I may or may not remember exactly when I met you or whether I taught you in three classes instead of two classes. It’s up to you to jog my memory. I need you to help me write the best letter I can.

My Requirements

1. Ask ASAP

  • If you want me to write a recommendation for you, you must ask me as soon as possible. If my workload does not permit me to spend enough time crafting a well-considered recommendation, I will decline the request. Thus, the earlier you ask me, the better.
    • This “earlier is better” rule is doubly true if you ask me to write a full-blown “letter of recommendation” rather than to fill out a standardized form and triply true if you ask me to write letters to multiple recipients.
  • As a rule of thumb, graduate school and law school recommendations will require 60 days’ notice. Multiple graduate school recommendations, especially to a mix of MA and PhD programs, will require 90 days’ notice.

2. Give Me a Release; Waive Right to Read the Recommendation

  • To disclose “non-directory information” as defined by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to entities outside the university, I need your written permission.
  • The university provides a general form. Print the form, fill it out, and sign it, modifying it in these ways:
    • Check “Other” and write Course performance, including grades; rank within course; rank within similar population; all information in personal statement in the blank;
    • At the bottom, write I waive my right to review this recommendation. Sign your name (again) next to that sentence.
    • You can scan the completed, signed form (or snap a picture with your smartphone/tablet), and share it with me via Google Drive.
  • I will not be able to begin working on your recommendation until I receive this form.

3. Give Me Dates and Details

  • Because asking for a recommendation is asking for a favor, it is up to you to make sure that I have all the deadlines, information, forms, updated resumes, application links, names, addresses, etc. I will need. I won’t do any of this legwork for you; it is your responsibility.
  • Give me a simple document in the form of a table listing pertinent information and dates, etc. and share it with me in Google Drive.
  • For graduate/law schools: in that same table, or in another one, you will need to copy/paste and send me pertinent information from the Web (e.g., program descriptions, course listings, etc.) so that I can tailor my comments appropriately. I do not have time to investigate the programs to write a good letter; you have to deliver all that information to me, and deliver it on time.
  • Make it easy for me to advocate for you. I won’t do your legwork, but I will try to work with what you send me so I can write a well-crafted letter.

4. Grad/Professional: Give Me Personal Statement and b) Follow Graff & Hoberek’s Advice

  • If the recommendation is to support an application to graduate or professional school, help me make the recommendation work in concert with the rest of your application. I’ll need, as soon as possible, a copy of any writing sample or personal statement/application essay you intend to submit with your application. Upload it via the Google Form.
  • If you are writing a personal statement, please read and apply Gerald Graff and Andrew Hoberek’s advice in their article “Hiding it from the Kids.” I need to see evidence in your personal statement that you read and applied their advice.
  • Again, make it easy for me to advocate for you.

5. Snail Mail vs. Upload

  • Most schools or programs require letters of recommendation to be uploaded to an online repository; a few holdouts here and there  might require hard copy letters, snail-mailed.
  • If you have a choice, please choose to have my recommendation letter uploaded, not snail-mailed.

6. No Teach for America

  • I will not write a letter on your behalf for Teach for America.

7. When Done, Send Me Thank-You Email

  • When I have completed the recommendation, most online submissions portals will send you a notification. I might also send you a brief status email telling you that it is done.
  • I then ask that you send me a brief email thanking me. Doing so is not only good manners, but it is also a way for you to help me document the “Service” portion of my duties to the university.
  • You need not send me anything other than an email.