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Tips for Asking a Faculty Member for a Letter of Recommendation

First of all, I hope you are safe, healthy, physically-distant, emotionally-close, and wearing masks during this unprecedented and challenging time. While the coronavirus pandemic has been extremely stressful, I am inspired to see how many people, communities, and businesses are pulling together to overcome it.

Your social distancing might include grad school application preparation, so I want to share a few tips to consider. I actually started working on this post about a year ago, and this year has been so wild that I hadn't finished it. I recently appointed an intern to HDFS Careers, and she nudged me to finish it (so big thanks to her)! I will be introducing her soon!

Most of these tips are related to graduate school letters, however, some points also apply to job references. (I need to do a specific post on that soon.) If you are applying to graduate schools, your application should most likely include a letter of recommendation from at least one (and maybe more) faculty members. Depending on the school and program, it is often acceptable to have a recommendation from a supervisor or former coworker. However, most of the time, you will still need at least one letter from a former faculty instructor or research supervisor unless you have had a very long break from school.

Here are my tips for asking faculty members for a letter of recommendation.

The Ask:

1. Don't ask just anyone. Carefully consider who would be in the best position to write you a positive letter of recommendation. If you hated their class and made that all too obvious, they might not be your best bet. If you skipped their class or missed many assignments, you probably need to keep looking. If you never actually spoke to or corresponded with the instructor when you took their class, they might not be the best choice either.

I have had to be in the uncomfortable position of declining requests from students. I feel bad when I have to do this, but I will still decline. If I become known as a person who recommends students who do not actually work hard in my classes, then my recommendation won't hold as much weight when I actually have a strong student to recommend. This isn't fair to my high-achieving students, so I have to decline when I have a student who has not performed well unless they have some very, very extreme circumstance that I believe I can adequately justify when writing the letter. Think back on the interactions you have had with your instructors and select your best bets based on those interactions.

Remember, no matter how great you are, their letter will be based on their specific experiences with you. If their experiences were not super positive, then don't ask them unless you have fully made restitution and believe the situation would be overlooked. I, for one, acted like a complete brat in one of my favorite professor's classes during either my junior or senior year of college (I don't remember now). I actually loved the class and the faculty member was awesome, but do you think he was the first person I was hounding to write a letter of rec? I don't think so! I knew good and well I had been ridiculous in that class, so I kept it moving and sought out some other professors on campus (praying he hadn't been complaining about my antics to them).

Occasionally, I have to write a letter for someone I have never actually met in person (typically because they have taken my online classes). In this case, it is helpful for the students to remind me that they were enrolled in my online class. If possible, it is helpful to arrange a time to meet (virtually in 2020 and 2021) briefly to discuss their professional goals. Meetings might not be possible right now due to increased demands on faculty time, but it is still worth politely asking.

2. Allow plenty of time. Give yourself plenty of time. Allow them plenty of time for the person to write the letter. Allow yourself plenty of time in case they never reply and you need to follow up or need to try to find an alternative recommender. Give them plenty of time to write a quality recommendation. I recommend at least one month's notice whenever possible.

3. Help them to remember who you are. Speaking personally, I have taught literally thousands of students in my relatively short career. I, and many of my colleagues, will need a little help remembering individual details about you. When writing your request, include your full name and information that will remind faculty about 1) when they first met you (because that is almost always requested on these forms and letters), 2) what specific classes or projects you were involved with as it relates to them (include the specific course number, section number, year, and semester, if relevant), and 3) your academic performance (I personally love a student who provides me with their resume and transcript attached to the request and/or reminds me of some standout assignment they excelled in while taking my class). It also helps to explain a bit about what you think they might be able to say based on their relationship with you.

See my example below:

Dear Dr./Prof. Helpful,

I hope this message finds you well. My name is [Your Name], and I am one of your former students.

During the Fall 2016 semester, I was enrolled in your HDFS 1000 Lifespan Development course at the University of Somewhere. I learned a great deal, and it was one of the courses that led me to pursue Human Development and Family Studies as a major. I found the topics related to [whatever you liked] so interesting that I wanted to continue learning more. During the Spring 2017 semester, I also completed your HDFS 3000 Child Development course online and enjoyed it as well. You might remember that I was so interested in the section on children's cognitive development that I sent you a few videos that I thought might be useful illustrations for the class. I still enjoy seeking out new resources related to that topic.

Now, I want to further advance my education by pursuing a master's degree in Human Development and Family Studies. I hope to learn even more about the potential influence of parenting behaviors on children's cognitive development. I also have a new interest in children's peer influences as well. Ultimately, I would like to apply my knowledge in a school-based or non-profit setting working directly with children and families.

Since you have been able to observe my enthusiasm for the field and my strong academic performance, I am hoping you might be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me. Below is a list of the programs to which I am applying and the associated application deadlines. I have also attached this list as a Word document along with a copy of my unofficial transcript and resume.

  1. Program 1 Name, University Name, Deadline

  2. Program 2 Name, University Name, Deadline

  3. Program 3 Name, University Name, Deadline

  4. Program 4 Name, University Name, Deadline

  5. Program 5 Name, University Name, Deadline

All of the programs use an electronic recommendation system with the exception of Program 5 Name. This exception requires that a hard copy letter be mailed and postmarked by the deadline of [insert deadline]. The correspondence information for that program is below. Program 5 also requests that a particular rating sheet be completed in addition to a letter. I have filled out the applicant portion and attached the rating sheet to this email.

Director of Admissions [Use Specific Contact Name if Provided]

Program 5 Name

University of Somewhere That Likes Snail Mail

10000 Academic Blvd.

City, State 10000

The remaining programs will send an email to you after I submit my application if you agree to write a recommendation for me.

I know this is a very busy time, but I hope you will be able to assist me as I further my educational goals. I wanted to provide all of the pertinent information up front so that you had some of the information you needed to make a decision. Please let me know if you will be able to assist me and if you need any additional information to decide. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.


Your Name

Disclaimer: Not all faculty necessarily like this level of detail up front, so use your best judgment. I like it because I teach a ton of students. I can respond much quicker if I don't have to waste a bunch of time wading through my old teaching records (those that still exist anyway) to try to find out how you performed in my course way back when. I can also respond quicker if I am not wasting time going back and forth with you to obtain this information in a makeshift email Q&A session, so this is my preference.

4. Share your professional goals. As you can see from my sample, the student ideally will have some coherent idea about what they might like to do and why they want to attend grad school (or pursue a particular job if it is a letter of recommendation for employment). Make this explicit. Show that you have thought about it.

I am ashamed to say that I have wasted faculty members' and administrators' time in the past by thinking I was going to apply to something only to lose interest later. My knowledge of my personal limitation in this area has made me skeptical to commit the time to writing a letter if the person doesn't even seem like they have seriously researched the opportunity or thought about their reasons why. Don't be like old me if you can avoid it. Sometimes it is unavoidable, and no shame there. :)

5. Be clear about the commitment. Is it just a letter? Is it just a rating sheet? Is it both? Are you applying to one school or 21 schools? Be clear in your communication so that they are clear about the commitment before they agree. When seeking out references for jobs, be clear about the jobs you are applying to and let them know someone may be contacting them (after they agree to serve as a reference--please don't just list them without telling them).

6. Confirm their contact information. This is important--especially if there is any chance that potential schools or employers might attempt to contact them during school breaks. Ask them what email address and phone number(s) would be best to list based on their personal preferences. Also, confirm that you have their full name spelled correctly and their current job title so that you can list it accurately. If they have a Ph.D., Ed.D., or any other doctoral degree, do yourself a favor and address them using it and list it appropriately. Some people won't care, but those that do will really care (and they have a right to care as they sacrificed a good chunk of their lives to earn that doctorate).

7. Include the SPECIFIC program names. Picture it. I am on Christmas vacation with my family when I suddenly remember that a recommendation deadline for a student is tonight! Oh no! I break out the laptop ready to type. Thankfully, I am able to pull up the student's course records and assignments from my previous classes. However, the student never told me the specific name of the program. No worries, right? I will go to the website. I got a degree in journalism, after all. I know how to find things.

Oh no! This department listed on the recommendation form has like 5 graduate programs! Which one are they applying to? That's alright. It's not ideal, but I can just say master's program. But wait, are they applying to one of the doctoral programs? Aww, man! Now, all I am left with is a generic, "would be an ideal candidate for your graduate program at Whatever University." It's not the best look. Give them the program names and any other essential information they might need.

8. Lucky #8. Proofread your request. Just do it. This is your last chance to make an impression on them before they write the recommendations that you care about. Use Grammarly or something. Have a detailed friend read. Don't be like me sitting here typing this at the end of the long work day without using grammar check while my child and spouse stomp around on the floor above me screaming about Dora the Explorer or something. Typos happen, but try to catch as many as you can so that your request comes off as professional.

After They Agree:

  • If it is an electronic submission system, monitor it to see if they have actually submitted your recommendation. Typically, you can monitor by logging into the system's applicant portal.

  • If they have not started the process a week before the deadline, I would personally send them a reminder. (Don't say, "I see you never bothered to open it." Just send a polite reminder about the upcoming deadline for the University of Wherever on [insert deadline] and thank them again for their work on the recommendation. Then, continue to monitor their progress in the portal.

  • Two days before the deadline for each school, send a reminder if you have not yet seen a confirmation that the recommendation has been received.

After They Submit:

After they have completed all of this for you, send them a thoughtful email or handwritten note. These things take a lot of work and they are stressful to some faculty because we want to be sure we present you in the best light that we can (while being honest). It is nice to say thank you.

I hope you found these tips helpful. I have certainly forgotten something or may have a different opinion about something, so seek out other guidance as well. However, I hope these tips will help you along as you seek out cheerleaders of support for your educational career!



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