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; What I Need

  • Jonathan Mayhew has some good advice on how to ask for a strong letter of recommendation, as does Matt Might.
    • Please 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 probably will not remember exactly when I met you or whether I taught you in three classes instead of two. It’s up to you to jog my memory. I need you to help me write the best letter I can. Remind me of particularly excellent projects or other relevant information. 
  • If you don’t give me this information to remind me of the relevant context, you’re tying my hands.

My Requirements

1. Ask ASAP

  • Ask me as soon as possible. If I have too many other deadlines preventing me from crafting a well-considered recommendation, I will decline. 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, I need 60 days’ notice for graduate school and law school recommendations. For multiple graduate school recommendations (especially to a mix of MA and PhD programs), I need 90 days.

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 work on your recommendation until I receive this form.

3. Give Me Dates and Details

  • Please ensure that I have all the deadlines, information, forms, updated resumes, application links, names, addresses, etc. that I will need. I won’t do any of this legwork for you; it is your responsibility.
    • Suggestion: give me a simple Google Docs table listing pertinent information and dates, etc. and share it with me.
    • 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.

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

  • Help me make the recommendation work with the rest of your application. I’ll need a copy of any writing sample, personal statement, or application essay that you will submit with your application. 
  • 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.

5. No Teach for America

  • I will not write a rec letter for Teach for America.

6. 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.