Letters of Recommendation

How to request letters of recommendation?

It seems daunting to approach a professor or professional reference and ask them to take the time out of their very busy schedule and write you a stellar letter of recommendation, and rightfully so. As the student, you are the one extending a branch to this professor who may or may not know you very well and asking them to pick specific parts of your personal, professional and educational background to laud and point out so that admissions committees will think you are something special. This process is at the same time easy and difficult.

The Difficult

  1. You have to ask (typically 3) professors to write you a letter and you don’t know which ones to ask
  2. You need to pick professors that not only know your work, but are willing to speak to the future that they see for you in your field/discipline
  3. Professors are busy, hard to get a hold of, potentially grumpy or might say no

The Easy

  1. Rule of thumb: if you have had a professor in a class, you can ask them to write you a reference. If you have not had a professor for a class, give them your writing sample to read and dask them if they would be willing to write you a letter after having acquainted themselves with your work.
  2. Make an excel sheet of the schools you are applying for that you need the professor to write a letter for (not every professor you ask needs to write for every school) telling them why you are interested in that school and why you think you are a good fit for the program. Be specific about experiences you have had or jobs you have worked that make you especially qualified for the position.
  3. Send your professors emails, stop by their office hours, or talk to them at department events. They are not avoiding you on purpose, so be proactive and get the letters that you need to be successful!

Generally if you are applying to a professor’s alma mater, you should ask them to write you a letter as chances are they still are in contact with someone in the department. Also, graduate school has a strange way of solving your problems for you. If you talk often and well about your future plans, someone listening might be able to help you. A professor you never thought to ask might have just returned from a conference at your dream school and would be willing to write you a letter: but you will never know this if you do not talk to them.

In a way, asking for letters of recommendation is the most similar what graduate school is actually like. You have to be able to give someone an elevator pitch of your interests and experiences persuasive enough to convince that professor to take a chance on you and throw their name into association with yours. Whatever you succeed in will reflect back on them so you want to be as assuring as possible. You are the one who is responsible for your own professional development and only you can ensure that you reach the heights that you are destined for. Others may help you along the way, but graduate school is competitive and no one gives favors without being pressured first.

So, be respectful, thankful and obliging. Ask your professors intelligent questions and write on topics that interest them. If they think you will be a benefit to their area of interest, the chances of them writing you a letter increase. Once you get accepted to a program you can change your mind as much as you want about your interests and research future.

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