How To Get An Amazing Letter Of Recommendation

how to get an amazing letter of recommendation


 

How to get an amazing letter of recommendation for graduate school

Many applicants become frustrated by the letter of recommendation aspect of the application. Afterall, you seem to have no control over what is submitted, yet the letter of recommendation you receive is arguably the most important part of your application.
So what can you do about it? Well as it turns out, a lot.  If you heed no other advice we offer, take this to heart: You DO have actionable control, and you should take the lead to ensure you get a great letter of recommendation.

 

 

The Biggest Letter of Recommendation Mistake You Can Make

Many websites discuss cultivating relationships with faculty members as an undergrad, and this is indeed a necessary aspect to getting the best recommendation–but it only gets you so far.
The common thought process is:
“If you’ve done good work and know the professors well, you’ll get a good letter.”
The problem with this is that it’s PATENTLY UNTRUE. In fact, it’s so off base, there was even an article on the Chronicle that outlines how you need to supervise your professor in the letter of recommendation process. Luckily, we’re about to outline how exactly you do this.
The thing to remember is that even the most well intentioned professors can fail to write a good letter. Maybe they’re incredibly busy this semester. Maybe they’re naturally absent minded. Maybe they don’t know you as well as you think they should. Or the more likely scenario: maybe they were just never told what was needed of them. There are a hundred reasons you can end up with a subpar or generic letter of recommendation.

 

 

Imagine a friend asks you to help them move this weekend. You like this person, and want to help them out, so you say sure. You show up Saturday bright and early and immediately notice that nothing in the entire house has been packed. It hasn’t even been cleaned. Dirty dishes are still in the sink and clothes are laying about. You try to shrug that off and get to work, afterall you really like this person. That’s when you notice there aren’t even any boxes. At this point your friend tells you they have to leave and do a few things at their new place, leaving you there alone with no packing tape, boxes, or even a plan for how you’re supposed to pack up all their junk! Would you be able or motivated to do the job well?
Despite how absurd that scenario seems, it’s how most requests for a letter of recommendation go down. A student asks for a favor which is time consuming and tedious, but the professor likes them and wants to help, so they say yes. From there, the student expects them to do all the work: inferring what programs the applicant is interested in, guessing their goals, looking up old grades, remembering everything the student worked on, surmising as to why they want to go to graduate school, and looking up university dates and deadlines.
Expecting them to do all that for you is not just rude, it’s objectively irresponsible. If this busy professor fails to do any of these things, you end up with a letter of recommendation that’s less than what it could be. After most students spend hundreds of hours prepping for the GRE and maintaining a good GPA–why drop the ball so magnificently in the last inning? You have to be a part of this process.
To quote Professor Leonard Cassuto at Fordham University from the Chronicle:

“For starters, let’s consider who’s directing it. I may be writing the recommendation, but don’t think I’m in charge. The main responsibility rests with you — the student who’s asking for the letter. That’s right: You’re guiding this process. When I write a recommendation for you, I’m working for you. Both of us, but especially you, want my letter to be as strong and persuasive as it possibly can be. That means you need to supervise me properly.”

Recommenders need your guidance to write you a great letter, and here’s a step by step guide on how to do that while being respectful, responsible, and looking out for your own interests.

 

 

First Contact

A lot of people will advocate asking for a letter of recommendation in person instead of via email. This is a bad idea. The traditional reason you’re advised to do that is to provide one-on-one details about yourself, your goals, and where you’re applying, i.e. all the necessary information for a good letter of recommendation. It is still a great idea to sit down and discuss these things in person, but we still advise sending an email first.
In an email you can easily provide all the information they need to decide if they want to write you an amazing letter of recommendation in the first place, without taking up 40 hours of their time.  If they say yes to writing one for you, they’d need all this information from you anyway. Your CV, list of programs you’re applying to, grades and homework from courses you took with them–all these things can easily be attached to said email. If you tell them these things in person, they’re left without references they can return to when actually writing, so make sure they have their own copies.
Send your request as far in advance as you comfortably can, but don’t send it until you know where you’ll be applying. You need to provide that information to the recommender from the start. It’s possible they might feel comfortable writing you a recommendation only to certain programs. Better you should know this as soon as possible. You don’t know what their schedule looks like–maybe they have a conference in Japan in December and won’t be around, so ask as soon as possible.

 

 

Email Body

So, what should the request email actually say? It should be detailed, but brief. Don’t force them to read through an enormous block of text. Get to the point quickly, but give pertinent information. An example letter to a professor you took a class (or several classes) with is outlined below.

 

Greetings Professor [LAST NAME],

My name is [FULL NAME]. I was in your [YEAR] [SEMESTER] [COURSE NUMBER and TITLE] class. I received an A. I really enjoyed how interactive the lectures were. A lot of the problem solving techniques such as your [DEMONSTRATION/SPECIFIC DETAIL] stayed with me, and it was one of the only classes I remember vividly because of how engaged I felt. The class project was the first opportunity I had to work on [SPECIFIC MATERIAL] and actually spawned my interest in pursuing more education in the field. To that end, I’ll be applying to graduate programs for the [ACADEMIC YEAR] application season. I already have a letter of recommendation from my most recent research advisor. However, I feel it would be a good idea to have a letter from someone who can speak to my coursework performance. Because your class was my favorite, it felt appropriate to ask you to write me a letter of recommendation. I realize it has been awhile since I took your class, so I’ve attached a copy of my resume and coursework details. If you don’t feel comfortable writing one, I completely understand, but hope you’ll consider it–as your course was a deciding factor in me pursuing a PhD. 

Thank you, I realize you’re very busy and appreciate your time.

[YOUR NAME]

For a request from someone with whom you conducted research, an example email is listed below.

 

Greetings Professor [LAST NAME],

It has been awhile since we spoke, but this is [NAME]. I worked in your [LAB/GROUP][YEAR] [SEASON] with the [PROGRAM]. My project involved [EXPLANATION OF PROJECT]. I really enjoyed my time on the project. A lot of the technical skills such as [SPECIFIC DETAIL] stayed with me, and the experience inspired me to keep looking into research, actually spawning my decision to pursue a PhD and become a full time researcher. To that end, I’ll be applying to graduate programs for the [ACADEMIC YEAR] application season. I feel it would be a good idea to have a letter from someone who can speak to my work on this project, given how much I learned and how critical the experience was for me. I was wondering if you would feel comfortable writing me a letter of recommendation. I realize it has been awhile since my project, so I’ve attached a copy of my CV, coursework details, and an overview of what I did and learned that [SUMMER/SEMESTER]. If you don’t feel comfortable writing one, I completely understand, but hope you’ll consider it–as the experience I gained working with you was a deciding factor in me pursuing a PhD. 

Thank you, I realize you’re very busy and appreciate your time.

[YOUR NAME]

Email Attachments

It’s important that you provide everything the person needs to (1) decide if they want to write you a recommendation in the first place and (2) make sure the letter of recommendation is the best it can possibly be. Why not wait until they give you an answer? Again, adding a lot of detail and useful information shows that you’re dedicated and prepared. It also tells the person that you’re willing to put in the work to make sure you get a good letter of recommendation instead of a generic one. Some professors will say yes to writing a letter even if they don’t really want to–sending a lot of detailed information is an easy way of encouraging them to say yes only if they’re willing to submit a good letter of recommendation.  Wouldn’t you feel a lot more responsibility to be honest after seeing how much work went into the request email?

 

What to include in your email

CV. This should include even more information than what you’ll submit with your applications. Highlight things you did with that person, itemize tools or techniques you learned, and make sure they can also see all the other things you’ve spent your time doing. This will help them to get to know you even better, and provide added details they can put into your letter of recommendation.
— List of schools/programs to which you’re applying. It doesn’t have to be 100% complete, but it should at least be in the ball park. For example, don’t list 3 schools and then send them recommendation requests from 13. Make sure they know what is expected of them from the start. This will also give them an idea of how good the letter really needs to be based on where you’re aiming. If you feel at all embarrassed, give a brief explanation under each school about why you want to attend that school, it gives them a reason to really want to help you. If you’re applying to Stanford, write that you realize it’s a reach school but that they’re the only place with a program focusing on [whatever you want to study], for example. Lastly, it’s entirely possible they will know professors at that school/program, which would give you an enormous edge on your letter of recommendation.
— One page summary of what you learned while working with them (if applicable). Itemize everything you learned, give a summary/review of your project, point out aspects that were specifically important to your learning process. This provides additional detail they can literally cut and paste into the letter if they want, so get specific and provide as much information as you can without being redundant. This can also double as your  “Direction” page, which we’ll explain in further detail below.
— Scanned copy of sample homework or tests and final grade results (if applicable). If you’re asking for a letter based on classwork alone, this is a non-negotiable. Provide scanned copies of all the graded assignments you can find, and definitely provide midterms and final exams. Don’t make them hunt for your grades. Even if they do still have a spreadsheet of your assignment grades, they surely don’t have a copy of it to go over. Your goal is to remind them how well you understood the material.
— Copy of your transcripts for all classes. This may seem like overkill, but again if you don’t know the professor super well, or even if you do, providing this information can really give them the green light to go all out for you. Knowing that you were a solid student all around is important for their peace of mind. It will also allow them to mention how much work you did (if you worked with them) while maintaining your GPA.
— Brief statement of purpose. Write a brief (1-2 paragraphs) statement explaining why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to study and learn. This is information you could tell them in person or in your email, but it’s a good idea to get specific. If your goal is to work for the World Bank, tell them that. If you want to work in academia down the line, that’s fine too. The important thing is that they know what your career goals are and what you want to study in graduate school. Professors know academia much better than you do. If you tell them you’re really interested in X, they may be able to provide helpful advice or even point out a program you overlooked. In the words of Professor Cassuto–

“Because you’re the one applying, you have to decide on your most persuasive strategy of self-presentation. Of course I want to help you. If you give me a coherent draft of your cover letter or project statement, I’ll advise you on how to make it most convincing. If it’s a polished draft, I’ll help you edit it. But you’re the one who’s making that happen. I’m the one giving help and advice.”

To this end, if you’re comfortable with it, go ahead and send a draft of your actual Statement of Purpose. If you do, you can not only get a better more rounded letter of recommendation, you can get some free advice on your SoP!

 

 

Provide Direction

Submit all your documents along with your request email. If you don’t hear back within two weeks, send them a follow up email.
If they say no, don’t feel bad. There are hundred reasons they could have said no and most of them have nothing to do with you. Just dust yourself off and move on to your next recommender choice.
If they say yes, congratulations! You’re one step closer to graduate school!
Now, there are several ways they could say yes:
(1) Sure, why don’t you go ahead and write me a draft.
(2) Sure, why don’t you come to my office next week and we’ll discuss it.
(3) Yes, I’d be happy to write you a recommendation.
Despite the different ways they could reply, your response should be pretty much the same across the board. You’ll want to send them a “skeleton draft” they can use to gauge what you want them to focus on. If they asked for a draft, you’ll want to fill it in substantially. If they didn’t, you can send them this outline as a guide for what you want from them.
The trick to getting accepted to a graduate program is to ensure that each part of your application packet provides a new and impressive piece of information about you. Each page the admissions committee reads should impress them and instill trust. So if your letter of recommendation from a previous professor is focused on how well you did in your classes, you’ll want this letter to focus on how well you did at research. Likewise, if your statement of purpose details all the techniques you learned, have your letter of recommendation focus on other positive attributes such as: hours worked per week, teaching other students, fixing equipment or writing software, helping with grant writing, etc. Remember: each piece should emphasize important experiences but also provide additional details. Don’t use the same story over and over again, even if you’re really proud of that particular aspect of your application.
If you’re not sure how to write up a skeleton draft, read through our detailed Letter of Recommendation guide.

 

Follow Up

Once you’ve sent a skeleton draft and communicated what you’re looking for, give them plenty of time to work on it. As the deadlines for applications loom, feel free to write reminder emails. If you’re unsure of how the letter writing process is going it’s ok to ask if you can read it, but remember that they’re under no obligation to show it to you before they submit. If you’re interested in reading about whether you should “waive your right” to see your recommendations, read through our explanation here. Don’t be afraid for feel guilty for asking.
The last bit of encourage we’ll leave you with is an excerpt from the Chronicle that we feel summarizes how you should feel about your letter of recommendation:

“Direct me. Yes, you need to tell me what to do — or, to put it less roughly, you need to describe what you need from me. Students often think that recommendation writing is a black box whose inner workings they’re powerless to understand or affect. We professors encourage that belief by cloaking what we do in a deliberately mysterious mantle of “confidentiality.” … Even with all of our fetishistic secrecy, your powerlessness is a fallacy. You’re only powerless if you step away.

…I mention this “default yes” position because students often ask for recommendations as though they’re begging for a special favor. It’s not a favor. It’s part of my job — and one of the more rewarding parts of it, in fact, because I get to see recommendations bring good things into students’ lives. So don’t feel guilty about asking for a letter.”

 


Author
By
@

Readers Comments

Trending Topics

grad school interview

Can I Turn Down An Interview?

December 25th, 2016

Yes. But you probably shouldn’t turn down a grad school interview. Next question…… Not a satisfying answer? Ok, we’ll elaborate. Note: If you want to attend, but have ...

Grad School Interview Conflicts

Grad School Interview Conflicts

December 13th, 2016

Grad school interview conflicts are a great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. The first time you get an interview invitation, it’s incredibly exciting. Then ...

Trending

graduate admissions results

Waiting For Admissions Results: How To Stay Sane

December 24th, 2016

  All your applications are submitted. The holidays are over. All that’s left is waiting for graduate admissions results to roll in. Life is great, right? ...

If you haven't heard back from graduate school admissions yet, does it mean you're rejected?

I Haven’t Heard Back Yet, AM I REJECTED?

December 23rd, 2016

For most applicants, the blissful few weeks after applications are submitted is a gift. Finals are over and you have a week or two away from work and ...

Subscribe

Want to get graduate school application tips sent straight to your email? Sign up so you never miss a post. You'll get free advice throughout the application season and we'll never spam your inbox!
Email *

Trending

You CAN Get Into Grad School With Low GRE Scores

June 19th, 2016

  Grad School With Low GRE Scores? Yes! We’re going to try and convince you that you can get into graduate school with a mediocre GRE ...

GRE Words

How Many GRE Words Should I Learn?

May 10th, 2016

Learning GRE words can be a daunting aspect of your study program. It’s about practicing questions andlearning material, which is a process that can takes weeks, months, or even years. This ...

Trending Topics

grad school interview

Can I Turn Down An Interview?

December 25th, 2016

Yes. But you probably shouldn’t turn down a grad school interview. Next question…… Not a satisfying answer? Ok, we’ll elaborate. Note: If you want to attend, but have ...

Grad School Interview Conflicts

Grad School Interview Conflicts

December 13th, 2016

Grad school interview conflicts are a great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. The first time you get an interview invitation, it’s incredibly exciting. Then ...

Trending

graduate admissions results

Waiting For Admissions Results: How To Stay Sane

December 24th, 2016

  All your applications are submitted. The holidays are over. All that’s left is waiting for graduate admissions results to roll in. Life is great, right? ...

If you haven't heard back from graduate school admissions yet, does it mean you're rejected?

I Haven’t Heard Back Yet, AM I REJECTED?

December 23rd, 2016

For most applicants, the blissful few weeks after applications are submitted is a gift. Finals are over and you have a week or two away from work and ...

Subscribe

Trending

You CAN Get Into Grad School With Low GRE Scores

June 19th, 2016

  Grad School With Low GRE Scores? Yes! We’re going to try and convince you that you can get into graduate school with a mediocre GRE ...

GRE Words

How Many GRE Words Should I Learn?

May 10th, 2016

Learning GRE words can be a daunting aspect of your study program. It’s about practicing questions andlearning material, which is a process that can takes weeks, months, or even years. This ...

How To Get An Amazing Letter Of Recommendation

how to get an amazing letter of recommendation April 16th, 2016


 

How to get an amazing letter of recommendation for graduate school

Many applicants become frustrated by the letter of recommendation aspect of the application. Afterall, you seem to have no control over what is submitted, yet the letter of recommendation you receive is arguably the most important part of your application.
So what can you do about it? Well as it turns out, a lot.  If you heed no other advice we offer, take this to heart: You DO have actionable control, and you should take the lead to ensure you get a great letter of recommendation.

 

 

The Biggest Letter of Recommendation Mistake You Can Make

Many websites discuss cultivating relationships with faculty members as an undergrad, and this is indeed a necessary aspect to getting the best recommendation–but it only gets you so far.
The common thought process is:
“If you’ve done good work and know the professors well, you’ll get a good letter.”
The problem with this is that it’s PATENTLY UNTRUE. In fact, it’s so off base, there was even an article on the Chronicle that outlines how you need to supervise your professor in the letter of recommendation process. Luckily, we’re about to outline how exactly you do this.
The thing to remember is that even the most well intentioned professors can fail to write a good letter. Maybe they’re incredibly busy this semester. Maybe they’re naturally absent minded. Maybe they don’t know you as well as you think they should. Or the more likely scenario: maybe they were just never told what was needed of them. There are a hundred reasons you can end up with a subpar or generic letter of recommendation.

 

 

Imagine a friend asks you to help them move this weekend. You like this person, and want to help them out, so you say sure. You show up Saturday bright and early and immediately notice that nothing in the entire house has been packed. It hasn’t even been cleaned. Dirty dishes are still in the sink and clothes are laying about. You try to shrug that off and get to work, afterall you really like this person. That’s when you notice there aren’t even any boxes. At this point your friend tells you they have to leave and do a few things at their new place, leaving you there alone with no packing tape, boxes, or even a plan for how you’re supposed to pack up all their junk! Would you be able or motivated to do the job well?
Despite how absurd that scenario seems, it’s how most requests for a letter of recommendation go down. A student asks for a favor which is time consuming and tedious, but the professor likes them and wants to help, so they say yes. From there, the student expects them to do all the work: inferring what programs the applicant is interested in, guessing their goals, looking up old grades, remembering everything the student worked on, surmising as to why they want to go to graduate school, and looking up university dates and deadlines.
Expecting them to do all that for you is not just rude, it’s objectively irresponsible. If this busy professor fails to do any of these things, you end up with a letter of recommendation that’s less than what it could be. After most students spend hundreds of hours prepping for the GRE and maintaining a good GPA–why drop the ball so magnificently in the last inning? You have to be a part of this process.
To quote Professor Leonard Cassuto at Fordham University from the Chronicle:

“For starters, let’s consider who’s directing it. I may be writing the recommendation, but don’t think I’m in charge. The main responsibility rests with you — the student who’s asking for the letter. That’s right: You’re guiding this process. When I write a recommendation for you, I’m working for you. Both of us, but especially you, want my letter to be as strong and persuasive as it possibly can be. That means you need to supervise me properly.”

Recommenders need your guidance to write you a great letter, and here’s a step by step guide on how to do that while being respectful, responsible, and looking out for your own interests.

 

 

First Contact

A lot of people will advocate asking for a letter of recommendation in person instead of via email. This is a bad idea. The traditional reason you’re advised to do that is to provide one-on-one details about yourself, your goals, and where you’re applying, i.e. all the necessary information for a good letter of recommendation. It is still a great idea to sit down and discuss these things in person, but we still advise sending an email first.
In an email you can easily provide all the information they need to decide if they want to write you an amazing letter of recommendation in the first place, without taking up 40 hours of their time.  If they say yes to writing one for you, they’d need all this information from you anyway. Your CV, list of programs you’re applying to, grades and homework from courses you took with them–all these things can easily be attached to said email. If you tell them these things in person, they’re left without references they can return to when actually writing, so make sure they have their own copies.
Send your request as far in advance as you comfortably can, but don’t send it until you know where you’ll be applying. You need to provide that information to the recommender from the start. It’s possible they might feel comfortable writing you a recommendation only to certain programs. Better you should know this as soon as possible. You don’t know what their schedule looks like–maybe they have a conference in Japan in December and won’t be around, so ask as soon as possible.

 

 

Email Body

So, what should the request email actually say? It should be detailed, but brief. Don’t force them to read through an enormous block of text. Get to the point quickly, but give pertinent information. An example letter to a professor you took a class (or several classes) with is outlined below.

 

Greetings Professor [LAST NAME],

My name is [FULL NAME]. I was in your [YEAR] [SEMESTER] [COURSE NUMBER and TITLE] class. I received an A. I really enjoyed how interactive the lectures were. A lot of the problem solving techniques such as your [DEMONSTRATION/SPECIFIC DETAIL] stayed with me, and it was one of the only classes I remember vividly because of how engaged I felt. The class project was the first opportunity I had to work on [SPECIFIC MATERIAL] and actually spawned my interest in pursuing more education in the field. To that end, I’ll be applying to graduate programs for the [ACADEMIC YEAR] application season. I already have a letter of recommendation from my most recent research advisor. However, I feel it would be a good idea to have a letter from someone who can speak to my coursework performance. Because your class was my favorite, it felt appropriate to ask you to write me a letter of recommendation. I realize it has been awhile since I took your class, so I’ve attached a copy of my resume and coursework details. If you don’t feel comfortable writing one, I completely understand, but hope you’ll consider it–as your course was a deciding factor in me pursuing a PhD. 

Thank you, I realize you’re very busy and appreciate your time.

[YOUR NAME]

For a request from someone with whom you conducted research, an example email is listed below.

 

Greetings Professor [LAST NAME],

It has been awhile since we spoke, but this is [NAME]. I worked in your [LAB/GROUP][YEAR] [SEASON] with the [PROGRAM]. My project involved [EXPLANATION OF PROJECT]. I really enjoyed my time on the project. A lot of the technical skills such as [SPECIFIC DETAIL] stayed with me, and the experience inspired me to keep looking into research, actually spawning my decision to pursue a PhD and become a full time researcher. To that end, I’ll be applying to graduate programs for the [ACADEMIC YEAR] application season. I feel it would be a good idea to have a letter from someone who can speak to my work on this project, given how much I learned and how critical the experience was for me. I was wondering if you would feel comfortable writing me a letter of recommendation. I realize it has been awhile since my project, so I’ve attached a copy of my CV, coursework details, and an overview of what I did and learned that [SUMMER/SEMESTER]. If you don’t feel comfortable writing one, I completely understand, but hope you’ll consider it–as the experience I gained working with you was a deciding factor in me pursuing a PhD. 

Thank you, I realize you’re very busy and appreciate your time.

[YOUR NAME]

Email Attachments

It’s important that you provide everything the person needs to (1) decide if they want to write you a recommendation in the first place and (2) make sure the letter of recommendation is the best it can possibly be. Why not wait until they give you an answer? Again, adding a lot of detail and useful information shows that you’re dedicated and prepared. It also tells the person that you’re willing to put in the work to make sure you get a good letter of recommendation instead of a generic one. Some professors will say yes to writing a letter even if they don’t really want to–sending a lot of detailed information is an easy way of encouraging them to say yes only if they’re willing to submit a good letter of recommendation.  Wouldn’t you feel a lot more responsibility to be honest after seeing how much work went into the request email?

 

What to include in your email

CV. This should include even more information than what you’ll submit with your applications. Highlight things you did with that person, itemize tools or techniques you learned, and make sure they can also see all the other things you’ve spent your time doing. This will help them to get to know you even better, and provide added details they can put into your letter of recommendation.
— List of schools/programs to which you’re applying. It doesn’t have to be 100% complete, but it should at least be in the ball park. For example, don’t list 3 schools and then send them recommendation requests from 13. Make sure they know what is expected of them from the start. This will also give them an idea of how good the letter really needs to be based on where you’re aiming. If you feel at all embarrassed, give a brief explanation under each school about why you want to attend that school, it gives them a reason to really want to help you. If you’re applying to Stanford, write that you realize it’s a reach school but that they’re the only place with a program focusing on [whatever you want to study], for example. Lastly, it’s entirely possible they will know professors at that school/program, which would give you an enormous edge on your letter of recommendation.
— One page summary of what you learned while working with them (if applicable). Itemize everything you learned, give a summary/review of your project, point out aspects that were specifically important to your learning process. This provides additional detail they can literally cut and paste into the letter if they want, so get specific and provide as much information as you can without being redundant. This can also double as your  “Direction” page, which we’ll explain in further detail below.
— Scanned copy of sample homework or tests and final grade results (if applicable). If you’re asking for a letter based on classwork alone, this is a non-negotiable. Provide scanned copies of all the graded assignments you can find, and definitely provide midterms and final exams. Don’t make them hunt for your grades. Even if they do still have a spreadsheet of your assignment grades, they surely don’t have a copy of it to go over. Your goal is to remind them how well you understood the material.
— Copy of your transcripts for all classes. This may seem like overkill, but again if you don’t know the professor super well, or even if you do, providing this information can really give them the green light to go all out for you. Knowing that you were a solid student all around is important for their peace of mind. It will also allow them to mention how much work you did (if you worked with them) while maintaining your GPA.
— Brief statement of purpose. Write a brief (1-2 paragraphs) statement explaining why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to study and learn. This is information you could tell them in person or in your email, but it’s a good idea to get specific. If your goal is to work for the World Bank, tell them that. If you want to work in academia down the line, that’s fine too. The important thing is that they know what your career goals are and what you want to study in graduate school. Professors know academia much better than you do. If you tell them you’re really interested in X, they may be able to provide helpful advice or even point out a program you overlooked. In the words of Professor Cassuto–

“Because you’re the one applying, you have to decide on your most persuasive strategy of self-presentation. Of course I want to help you. If you give me a coherent draft of your cover letter or project statement, I’ll advise you on how to make it most convincing. If it’s a polished draft, I’ll help you edit it. But you’re the one who’s making that happen. I’m the one giving help and advice.”

To this end, if you’re comfortable with it, go ahead and send a draft of your actual Statement of Purpose. If you do, you can not only get a better more rounded letter of recommendation, you can get some free advice on your SoP!

 

 

Provide Direction

Submit all your documents along with your request email. If you don’t hear back within two weeks, send them a follow up email.
If they say no, don’t feel bad. There are hundred reasons they could have said no and most of them have nothing to do with you. Just dust yourself off and move on to your next recommender choice.
If they say yes, congratulations! You’re one step closer to graduate school!
Now, there are several ways they could say yes:
(1) Sure, why don’t you go ahead and write me a draft.
(2) Sure, why don’t you come to my office next week and we’ll discuss it.
(3) Yes, I’d be happy to write you a recommendation.
Despite the different ways they could reply, your response should be pretty much the same across the board. You’ll want to send them a “skeleton draft” they can use to gauge what you want them to focus on. If they asked for a draft, you’ll want to fill it in substantially. If they didn’t, you can send them this outline as a guide for what you want from them.
The trick to getting accepted to a graduate program is to ensure that each part of your application packet provides a new and impressive piece of information about you. Each page the admissions committee reads should impress them and instill trust. So if your letter of recommendation from a previous professor is focused on how well you did in your classes, you’ll want this letter to focus on how well you did at research. Likewise, if your statement of purpose details all the techniques you learned, have your letter of recommendation focus on other positive attributes such as: hours worked per week, teaching other students, fixing equipment or writing software, helping with grant writing, etc. Remember: each piece should emphasize important experiences but also provide additional details. Don’t use the same story over and over again, even if you’re really proud of that particular aspect of your application.
If you’re not sure how to write up a skeleton draft, read through our detailed Letter of Recommendation guide.

 

Follow Up

Once you’ve sent a skeleton draft and communicated what you’re looking for, give them plenty of time to work on it. As the deadlines for applications loom, feel free to write reminder emails. If you’re unsure of how the letter writing process is going it’s ok to ask if you can read it, but remember that they’re under no obligation to show it to you before they submit. If you’re interested in reading about whether you should “waive your right” to see your recommendations, read through our explanation here. Don’t be afraid for feel guilty for asking.
The last bit of encourage we’ll leave you with is an excerpt from the Chronicle that we feel summarizes how you should feel about your letter of recommendation:

“Direct me. Yes, you need to tell me what to do — or, to put it less roughly, you need to describe what you need from me. Students often think that recommendation writing is a black box whose inner workings they’re powerless to understand or affect. We professors encourage that belief by cloaking what we do in a deliberately mysterious mantle of “confidentiality.” … Even with all of our fetishistic secrecy, your powerlessness is a fallacy. You’re only powerless if you step away.

…I mention this “default yes” position because students often ask for recommendations as though they’re begging for a special favor. It’s not a favor. It’s part of my job — and one of the more rewarding parts of it, in fact, because I get to see recommendations bring good things into students’ lives. So don’t feel guilty about asking for a letter.”

 


By
@
backtotop