Letters of Recommendation

How to fool your Professors into thinking you’re a good person.


The first thing you need to know about letters of recommendation is that they are not a one time thing. For most of us, we often avoid going to visit professors in the first place.  When it comes to letters of recommendation the temptation will be to email one of your professors a few weeks before your letter is due and ask, “if it’s not too much trouble would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation?” From the point of view of an introverted and intimidated college student, this approach makes perfect sense. You do it over email, avoiding the nervousness and awkwardness of meeting someone in person. You can avoid questions you might not know how to answer, and most of all you can do it from home, where you are safe!

Unfortunately, while this approach is comfortable it is not the way to get a good letter. Think of it from the prospective of your professor. You may have done well in their class, maybe you got an A and great comments on your papers, maybe you talked in class and even went to an office hour or two! You’re going to get a great letter right? Well… As awesome as you were the reality is that we have anywhere from 50 to 150 or more student each semester. Multiply that times three or four papers that we’re grading and suddenly it’s easy to see that we may not remember as much about you as you might think. Don’t take it personally! We probably remember that you were a great student and that we enjoyed having you in class, but beyond that we probably don’t remember much, especially if it’s been a semester or more since you were in class with us. What’s more, a letter of recommendation asks us to talk about you as a person, as a student, and as a potential scholar. We might remember you were nice, and we can look up your GPA, but beyond that what are we going to say about you?

In an ideal world the letters of recommendation that you will be submitting will do a hell of a lot more than just say, “this person is smart, you should let them in.” It should be a key element of an application package that helps to paint a picture of you as a full and complete person to the admissions committee. All of the pieces of that package should all point to one thing, that you belong in graduate school, and more specifically, you belong in THE graduate program you are applying to. Your statement of purpose is one way to start painting that picture, but your letters are another tool to help you show how much you belong.

In order for this to happen your letter writers need to know WAY more about you than, “they were a good student.” You are WAY more interesting than that, and you have WAY more going for you that belongs in that letter. BUT the only way for us to get that information about you is for you to give us that information! You can do that in multiple ways that we will discuss, but you CANNOT do it without showing up to office hours and TALKING with your professor. Emails are good, phone calls are great, but there is really no substitute for face to face communication with another person. For a lot of you this is going to be an issue, you’re working a job, you have a family, you have class pressures! I know, I know. Those things matter and they take time, but what you are doing right now is investing in yourself. The time you spend now will be paid back to you in a million ways that you may not ever even know about. If there is ANY way possible to get into see your professors and talk to them, then do it. Get a sitter, call in sick, find someone to take notes for you, but get there, go talk, BE THERE!

Now, what do you talk about? Well, there are some hints about how to handle office hours on the Office Hours Tips page. Go read that for some ideas. The whole point is to develop a relationship between yourself and your letter writers. Ideally these should be people that you can and will talk to about your plans, your hopes your goals and your setbacks. They should be potential mentors for the road you are traveling, and invaluable guides for what lies ahead. Many professors are absolutely willing to play that role for you, but to get that help you have to ASK!

Finally, when it comes time for the letter you’re going to do everything you can to give your letter writers as much information about you as possible. You’ll give them a CV, you’ll give them a copy of your statement of purpose (preferably draft 4 or 5, not draft 1) and a copy of your writing sample if you need one. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, you need to give them an About Me page. This will be a page that lists any and everything that doesn’t show up in the previous documents. You can talk about things that you’ve done, hobbies you have, places you’ve been, things you’ve experienced. This is your chance to give them raw material to help them write your letter. When I needed letters from my letter writers I’ve literally had some of them copy and paste pieces of my About Me page into their letters. This might seem like cheating, but in reality your helping to make our job a little easier. We want to present you in the best possible light, and having information that helps us paint that picture of you as a full and complete person will help us do that.

Last thing. I remember the feeling I had as an undergrad going in to talk to my professors knowing that I would eventually want to ask them for a letter of recommendation. I felt kind of dirty, like I was buttering them up, or leading them on in some way. I felt like they would be angry with me if they knew that I was hoping to get something from them. BUT, now being on the other side, I can tell you that this feeling is almost completely in your head. The reality is that writing letters is a part of our job, we EXPECT to write letters and often times we really enjoy it! When you come into our office hours we don’t feel like you are there to take advantage of us, if anything we’re impressed that you have it together enough to plan ahead and come talk to us! What you don’t know is that as former graduate students and as professors we have had to get COUNTLESS letters of recommendation over the years. We’ve had to ask SEVERAL different professors at multiple different institutions to do the same thing for us that you are asking us to do for you. If we have a job as a professor it is in part because someone took the time to write us a really good letter, and more than that, someone took the time to be our mentor, to walk us through the confusing, overwhelming and stressful experience of graduate school. Now that we are on the other side the expectation is that we will do the same things for you that were done for us. So don’t be embarrassed, don’t be afraid and don’t wait! In a lot of ways you asking for help is giving us a chance to give back the help that was given to us.