How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are often required when applying to faculty positions, fellowships, internship programs, and some job opportunities. In a letter of recommendation, someone you know vouches for both your character and skills. Their purpose is to help a search committee know that you possess all the qualities of their ideal candidate—that you’d both be prepared to meet the demands of the position as well as be a good colleague. Many graduate students may feel hesitant about reaching out to advisors and supervisors for letters of recommendation; however, there are things you can do to help keep the process smooth and painless for both you and your recommenders.
Don’t Let the Need for Letters of Recommendation Stop You from Applying
Letters of recommendation can feel like a big ask during the application process and can discourage at least some applicants from ever applying. Graduate students sometimes have a hard time asking for help, and it can be difficult not to feel guilty about asking a recommender to take on additional work. However, try not to let this stop you from pursuing a position you care about. If you’ve developed good relationships with your past supervisors, they will likely be happy to help you succeed even if it means some extra work for them. There will also likely come a time when you yourself are asked to write a letter of recommendation, which will be a great opportunity to pay it forward.
Tips for Asking for Letters of Recommendation
Deciding Whom to Ask
Some applications will require letters from particular people, such as your advisor or PI. However, if the choice is yours, be sure to ask people with whom you have a close relationship as they will be more willing to write you a letter than those with whom you don’t. They are also better prepared to be letter-writers since they will have greater insight into who you are as both a person and a potential employee. Think about who you know who can speak to the information the application seeks. This means you may ask different people for letters depending on the position or opportunity.
If you’re connected with someone who has made a name for themselves in the field to which you are applying, they may also be a good person to ask—but only if you have a genuine relationship with them. It’s a toss-up as to whether a generic letter from someone established in the field will carry more weight than a very detailed letter from someone less known.
When to Ask
Give your letter writers as much notice as you can. Be respectful of your recommenders’ time and other commitments. Not everyone can turn around a letter in 24 or 48 hours, especially if they’re trying to do it justice. Try to allow at least two weeks before the deadline, but more time is always better.
If you’re anxious about having your letters of recommendation submitted on time, it might be useful to set a deadline for your recommenders that precedes the deadline of the application. This way, if you’ve yet to receive notice that they’ve completed the letter, there’s still time to follow up. This may be especially important to consider if you know your recommender is often juggling many tasks at once.
How to Make the Initial Ask
It’s best to ask for a letter of recommendation via email as it puts less pressure on the recommender to say yes and allows them time to think about the decision. Someone may like to write you a letter but genuinely not have enough time to do so before the deadline. Others may not feel fully qualified. In your email, be clear about what the letter is for, as well as the deadline. If you’re asking someone you might not have been in contact with for awhile (for example, a professor whose class you enjoyed and excelled in but which took place over a year ago), begin the email by reminding them of who you are and how you know them.
Sending Follow-Up Materials
If the person agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, your job isn’t done yet. Now would be the time to send them any additional details about the letter (e.g., any instructions about what it should include and where it should be sent), as well as any supplemental materials that will help them write a more specific letter, such as your resume, CV, or cover letter. Be sure to ask them if there’s anything else that would be helpful for them to have or know about you or the position to which you’re applying. It’s also okay to give them a sense of what you’d like them to address. For example, if they’ve witnessed you demonstrating a particular skill or quality that you know is important to the hiring committee, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to ask them to mention that item in their letter.
If given the option, it is always best to keep your letters of recommendation confidential between your recommenders and your potential employer. This ensures that your recommenders can speak freely. Opting to keep your letters confidential signals confidence to the employer that you trust your recommenders will write positive letters about you.
Say Thank You
Always remember to thank your recommenders—both when they first agree to write your letter, as well as when they let you know they have submitted it. Letters—especially good ones—take time and energy to write. If you express gratitude, these individuals will be more likely to help you again in the future if needed.
Tell Your Recommenders If You Get the Job
If your application is successful, be sure to circle back and share the news with your recommenders. They will be happy that both their hard work and yours paid off.
When All Else Fails …
Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation
Although never the best option or first thing you should suggest, there are rare occasions when your letter writer may ask you to draft the letter for them or when you might offer this option yourself. This may come about if your recommender is super busy but still wants to support you or if the application asks for a letter from a specific entity (such as a Dean or Director of your program) with whom you may not have a relationship. Be careful about resorting to this option, but as a last-ditch effort to complete your application, it might be worthwhile.