Getting letters from professors: A guide for students

from Hiro Lee Tanaka

Most programs ask for a recommendation letter. So who do you ask for one? And how do you ask for one? What roles do recommendation letters play anyway? This is a guide for students thinking about asking a professor for a recommendation letter. It's written by--and based on the experience of--an Assistant Professor in math. (In other words, a young professor with only moderate experience.)

How important are letters? Imagine being an evaluator in the application process. We start here, because your goal is presumably to get into some program: So, do you know what the program is looking for?

Depending on the program--whether it be a fellowship, a graduate program, a job, or an internship--an evaluator will have to review many applications. The truth is, if one has to review more than 30 applications, many of them begin to look the same. The laziest, easiest way to distinguish candidates is by numerical measures (grades, exam scores) and also by experience (as indicated by your personal statement or resume). So what roles do letters of recommendation play?

Well, the measures above are as lazy as they are uninformative. A lot applicants often have similar grades and similar resumes. What distinguishes applicants for evaluators are strong letters, especially from sources the evaluators may know and trust.

A warning: Most evaluators are probably looking for more than just course performance. So you probably shouldn't ask for a letter from someone just because you got a good grade in their class.

The upshot: You want a letter from somebody who is actually familiar with you, and who can write about the kinds of things that your evaluators will be looking for.

But how do you know whether someone knows you?

How do we ask for a letter? I want you to imagine (for your eventual advantage) what the process is like from the professor's viewpoint. I want to divide it up into three steps.

1. Before asking for a letter. As professors, we get asked for recommendation letters a lot, especially in the wake of teaching a large class. And if you've ever felt like some professors in large classes may not remember your name, let alone who you are--you may be right. The result is that, if you do get a letter from a professor on whom you haven't been able to make a big impression, you may end up with a very generic letter saying little concrete about you. (If our only recollection of you is the written record of your grade, we'll be able to say little more.)

As a professor, I feel most comfortable writing a strong letter for a student who's left an impression on me: Whether s/he came to my office hours often, whether s/he asked thoughtful questions in class, whether s/he wrote e-mails to me, or otherwise interacted with me in a way outside the norm. Here are some suggestions, though not exhaustive:

2. How to ask for a letter. When you ask us for a letter, it can be in-person, or via e-mail. Many of us would probably prefer e-mail so we have a record of it. When you ask, make sure to tell us What the letter(s) are for. For example, for which job, internship, or graduate program are you applying? If there are two very different programs for which you want letters, tell us so we write appropriately different letters. If you can, also include something very brief about what you believe the programs are looking for. (A letter for a program seeking "evidence of leadership" is very different from a letter for a program seeking "mathematical maturity.") See above for why it is important that you help us cater to the program. When the letters are due, and for which programs. You should give us an easy-to-reference list of the programs for which you need letters, and the deadlines for each. Imagine having letters to write for eight students, and five letters for each student. Nice, enumerated or ordered lists are very, very helpful to keep track of the forty-or-so letters we might need to ultimately submit. Dates are also important so that the professor knows how far away the deadlines are--we don't often write good letters that are due in only two weeks. Give us at least a month, if possible. (But this time deadline is not a hard and fast rule--it's case-by-case.) By the way, recommendation requests never stop--former students ask us for letters frequently. So just because you only see us teaching one small class, try not to assume that we have plenty of time for letter-writing. You might mention also that, if the professor says yes, you will send them drafts of your cover letter, or personal statement, or whatever else document you'll send to the program.

3. After the professor responds. If the professor says no, you'll probably have to ask somebody else, though depending on the circumstance you could try asking them or pressing them once more. For instance, I have on occasion tried to decline writing letters for graduate biology programs because I have no expertise in biology. But the student wanted me to write about their mathematical strengths, so that's what I wrote about (I was willing to do that).

If the professor says yes, make sure to send them

That's the end of the guide. Keep in mind that none of the advice here is set in stone, and every situation is unique. Don't be discouraged if you realize you haven't done some of the things listed here. And don't feel like this guide is a foolproof template, either. Make sure you're simply exercising common sense, and that you are also taking the time to think about what actions can lead to the best outcomes for your future. (I know, easier said than done.) Good luck.