Letters of Recommendation

When I was in high school and college, requesting a letter of recommendation was A Very Big Deal. My high school guidance counselors instructed us to fill out questionnaires so they could write very specific, personalized letters for each of our private college applications. When I was in college, I was told that my chances of getting into graduate school would be better if I asked a full time professor (rather than an adjunct or teaching assistant) for letters – better if s/he was a tenured associate professor (though we know there are many highly qualified adjuncts and TAs out there who do tremendous work teaching, researching, etc. Alas, the academy). Both in high school and college, I was given very specific directions on how to request a letter of recommendation; most I followed, and some I clearly and embarrassingly violated. Now that I’ve applied to multiple programs and grants; now that I’ve served on several search and admissions committees; and now that I am in a position to write letters or to serve as a reference for my students – tasks that I am happy to do – I’ve created my own set of guidelines to facilitate the process.

Before you ask me, consider the following:

  1. Did you take a class with me, or work with me in another capacity, such as as a member of a student organization that I advised? I am more willing to write you a letter, and a strong letter at that, if we have some history together.
  2. Did you do well in my course(s)? Did you actively participate in course discussions and activities? Were you consistently on time, communicative, professional?
  3. Am I the best professor to speak to your abilities, skills and/or potential regarding the position for which you are applying? For example, if this is a technology-related position, can I look back at your assignments in my literature courses and speak to your technology skills?
  4. Are you my advisee?
  5. Are you prepared to explain to me why you think you are the best person for this job, or why this graduate program is the best fit for you?

So you’ve decided that I am indeed the best person to write you a letter! Great. Now, consider the following:

  1. You may request a letter of recommendation via email. Many “how to request a LoR” websites encourage you to speak to your professor in person, but I am okay with email. Of course, if you want to discuss the position or graduate program, I am more than happy to meet with you in person, on Zoom, or on the phone.
  2. I need a copy of the job ad or some information about the graduate program, and polished copies of your cover letter, personal statement, research statement, CV and/or resume. Since I’ve agreed to write a letter, you may also assume it is safe to ask me to proofread these application materials, but I may not do it if you don’t specifically ask.
  3. If the job or graduate application requires me to fill out a form/questionnaire, please complete as much of the form as you can before giving it to me; for example, you should fill out your personal information such as your name. Consider whether or not you will waive your right to access the letter that I write and the implications of that decision.
  4. If you are requesting that I write a letter for multiple jobs/graduate programs, please provide me with a document that states each institution, due date, format (email or hard copy), etc.
  5. If you are a current student or recent graduate, I may have a copy of your assignments with my comments. Please confirm; otherwise, I will need copies of some of your best assignments in my class(es), with my comments, as well as a list of the courses you’ve taken with me and the grades you earned.
  6. I need you to tell me specifically who to address the letter to, where to send it, and by when. If it can be sent through email, please make sure you’ve given me the email address. If it needs to be a paper letter, please provide me with a stamp and the mailing address. I will use departmental stationery.
  7. If you want me to comment on something specific about you and your work, please tell me. If there is something specific I should know about the organization or institution (it’s located in a very diverse area, it typically employs Illinois grads, etc.), please tell me.
  8. All of the above should be submitted to me at least 3 weeks before the application deadline. Consider the timing; the last week of a semester is probably not the best time to ask for a letter that has an impending deadline because I will likely be grading finals, preparing for the next semester, doing research, and traveling – unless the letter is not due for another month or two. If you know you are applying to graduate programs with January 1 deadlines, talk to me as early as possible. I am typically not in-state during the winter holidays.
  9. If I’ve written a letter for you in the recent past, updating should not be a problem. That said, if you have more recent coursework, or if it’s a holiday (summer, winter, etc.), I would still appreciate at least 3 weeks notice.

So I’ve agreed to write you a letter. Now what?

  1. You may send me a gentle reminder 3-4 business days before the deadline; 5-7 days if the letter needs to be sent via snail mail.
  2. Say “thank you.” This is a professional program, and we expect professional behavior. Communicating your gratitude in a professional manner is good practice, and hand writing thank you notes is a lost art that I hope you will continue to practice as you enter the profession.
  3. Let me know when you hear back from the job/graduate program. When I agree to write a letter or serve as a reference, it’s because I sincerely wish you well, and I want to know what happens.

Good luck ^^

Last updated on 2022 October 19.

5 thoughts on “Letters of Recommendation

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  2. Bill Raabe

    I read your LoR requirements and am impressed at how much WHS you retain. I especially like the hand-written thank you notes. I agree; it’s nice to know that your effort is appreciated.

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