Obtaining Letters of Recommendation: A cautionary tale

Given that at least 2 to 3 letters of recommendation are required for most graduate programs, it may seem reasonable to ask several professors for letters in the hopes that your minimum requirement will be met. However, it is extremely important to be aware of what that professor can say about you. Therefore, I would urge you to only ask professors/ employers that you have worked in a close capacity with, either as a research or clinical assistant. Finally, you want to avoid having a “cookie cutter” letter of recommendation written on your behalf. A professor might say, “yes” to writing a letter, but if they don’t have anything to say, it will be clear in the letter they write. They will use ambiguous phrases like, “DaisyLamb asks a lot of questions in class” and “she is highly motivated.” While these phrases aren’t negative per say, they will be read by graduate committees as “generic” or “ordinary.”

Dos and Don’ts of asking for a recommendation:

1. Professors are extremely busy people. Do not ask them for a letter of recommendation too close to the application due date.  Aim to ask for a letter at least three weeks prior to the due date. Given that most applications are online, professors will need to fill out several pieces of information about you (and several of your peers) and need adequate time to do so.

2. Do schedule meetings in person. This should not be the first time a professor has met with you in person. At the very least a professor should know your name, face, what you hope to study in graduate school and one thing that separates you from your peers.

3. Do send one reminder email if your due date is approaching and you have not yet received a response.

4. Don’t sent several emails to a professor. If they agreed to write a letter on your behalf, and you know them in a close capacity, they will make sure to send everything on time. This is not their first year of writing recommendation letters for students.

5. Do say something like, “Will you be comfortable writing a recommendation on my behalf?” as opposed to, “Will you write my recommendation?”

6. Do try to organize your paperwork / university portals as efficiently as possible. Provide your professor with a follow-up email that contains a cover-letter, personal statement, and information about you.

7. Do send a hand-written thank you letter!

Good Luck!!