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:
- You can take professors out to a meal in Harvard Square, because the College provides funds for you to do this! You can also invite them to the dinners at your Houses. Such infrastructure is not in place at most other universities. Take advantage of these. Even learning details about your personal background--what city you're from, what you do outside of classes--can make it easier for us to get to know you. If we talk about classes or research, this will also give us an idea of your intellectual interests. Also, these outings do not need to be one-on-one. If you can bring along a small number of peers, that's totally fine, too. Just make sure the professor knows who you are. One obvious way is to ask questions--during, before, or after the course--that go beyond the material and tell us about your curiosities. E-mail or a scheduled meeting is a good medium to show the ways in which you're trying to understand things that go beyond the box of the curriculum.
- If you don't have many questions beyond the curriculum, you can still write with questions, or come into office hours. I, personally, will not judge you for not grasping something the first time around. I also know that many professors enjoy witnessing the moments when a student unlocks something in their mind--whether it be through e-mails, or through an interaction in person. Seeing your growth is helpful to writing a letter and remembering you, rather than having you hide away. Moreover, if you come in as a non-expert to a class, but you leave with visible fluency, this growth is something we can write about in letters, too. ("S/he came in not having any background in formal proofs, but left the semester with a great grasp of ?," for instance.)
- Remember: While coming off as a genius is a sufficient condition for getting a memorable letter, it is far from necessary. The norm is for students to be shy from professors, and to never leave an impression. So if you take the extra step to try and get to know your professor, or show that you're engaging with the material in a way that shows some dedication, you will already be above the fray.
- Finally, try not to rely on your coursework alone as the key to a good letter. Many classes will have assistants who do the grading, so the professor may not be at all familiar with your homework and tests. Even if the professor does all the grading, in a class with more than 20 people, and in the rush to get the grading finished, we may not remember the details about your individual work.
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
- A copy of, or a link to, the program description (if they have one, and if you hadn't done so already in the previous step of asking for a letter).
- Instructions for how to submit letters. It's in your best interest if the professor doesn't have to do their own digging around for how to submit the letter. If we end up writing a letter last-minute, we don't want to miss a deadline or somehow mess up the electronic submission just because we couldn't figure out how to do it. These instructions don't need to be "step-by-step"--you can assume most of us are fairly technologically literate. (We submit letters all the time.) Just a link to the upload website, or an explicit mailing address, will do.
- Drafts of your personal statements and cover letters for the programs. We don't want any conflicting writing--if you say one thing, your professor shouldn't say another. These are allowed to be drafts; make sure the professor knows also that they are drafts.
- Grades can also be helpful, too, so feel free to send those along to the professor. (If you do send along grades, there's no need for them to be official; just copy-pasting from a website would do.)
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.