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Dos and Don'ts for Requesting a Recommendation Letter for Grad School

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Recommendation letters are a critical component of your graduate school application, yet are entirely dependent on other people -- your professors. How you request a letter influences professors' responses and ultimately the quality of your recommendation.

How to Request a Recommendation Letter

  • Don't request a recommendation letter by email.
  • Don't spring it on the faculty member. Don't ask before or after class, in the hall, or at any other seemingly random time.
  • Arrange an appointment, explaining that you wish to discuss your plans to apply to graduate school. This gives the professor a heads up and a chance to think about whether he or she can write a helpful letter on your behalf.
  • Don’t ask, “could you write a letter?” Instead ask, “Do you feel that you are able to write a helpful letter supporting my application to graduate school?" Ask whether the faculty member feels that he or she can write a "helpful letter." You don’t need any old letter – you need a good letter.
  • Prepare. Be prepared to discuss the type of degree you seek, programs to which you are applying, how you arrived at your choices, goals for graduate study, future aspirations, and why you believe the faculty member is a good candidate to write a letter of your behalf.
  • Remember to tell the professor the application due date. This may influence his or her decision.

What Your Professor Needs to Write Your Letter

  • Time.  Give the faculty member enough time to write a good letter. Writing a letter of recommendation isn't easy. Ask at least a month before the due date. Earlier is better given that faculty need to adjust their schedule.
  • Don’t make faculty rush as it will result in an average or even mediocre letter. When every recommendation letter an admissions committee receives is stellar, average will hurt your application.
  • Understand that even if you give a professor a month to write your recommendation letter he or she might not submit it until just before the deadline. It's a sad reality: Profs procrastinate too.
  • Give the professor what he or she needs to write an informed letter, including recommendation forms, transcript, essays, and other essential information. Don't forget to include relevant links and emails for online applications.
  • If your prof requests hard copies, print out information for each program so that faculty have the information they need to tailor their letter of recommendation to the program (very effective, if they choose that route).
  • Be neat. Place all of your documentation in a folder and neatly label each item. Clip each recommendation form to supporting documentation, relevant admissions essays, and a stamped envelope. Use a sticky note to mark the deadline on each. Neatness counts because it makes professors’ jobs easier and sends the message that you are organized.
  • If your prof requests electronic documents, place all files into one folder and organize them by using descriptive titles. Again, be neat.

Seek Advice and Pay Attention

  • Ask for input on your choices and overall advice. If the faculty member offers to review your admissions essay, take him or her up on it – and use their advice to improve your essay.
  • Pay attention to signals that faculty member does not want to write a letter on your behalf. Anything other than a glowing letter can harm your application. You don't want a lukewarm letter – it’s the kiss of death.
  • Take no for an answer. If a faculty declines to write you a recommendation letter, don't push. He or she is doing you a favor

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