Getting Effective Letters of Recommendation

With some careful planning and strategy, you can increase the changes of obtaining strong letters of recommendation for your application.  Here’s a step-by-step process to consider!

First, what do letters of recommendation accomplish?  Ideally, they accomplish the following three objectives:

 

  1. Confirm information on your resume or application
  2. Evaluate you and your work
  3. Place your achievements in context

With this purpose in mind, consider the following:

Step 0: Laying the Foundation

 

  • Even before you need a letter of recommendation, you should give your instructors and mentors “unique and powerful things to say [about you] in a letter of recommendation” (Jane Dmochowski, University of Pennsylvania).
  • Work hard; show curiosity and creativity; be engaged. Don’t be afraid to share your dreams – even well before you have concrete plans.

Step 1: Deciding Whom to Ask

 

  • Work through your application first, deciding on themes and major points.
  • Consider this question: Who can write effectively and convincingly about these themes and points?
  • Use the instructions on the application to help you choose your letter writers, making sure to follow the guidelines. (For example, if the award asks for three letters, two of which must be from faculty members, then make sure you have at least two faculty members in your to-ask list.)
  • Seek a mix of people who can write about different aspects of your life and work. Consider the award criteria and the individuals who can best illuminate those aspects of your candidacy.
  • Choose people who know you well – provided you are not related to them. Big names are less important than heartfelt and knowledgeable writing.

Step 2: Making the Ask

 

  • Give your letter-writers no fewer than two weeks – three weeks would be better – to write your letters.
  • Consider the timing of the ask. Do NOT ask before class or via email but rather when you both have 5-10 minutes to talk. Drop by office hours or schedule an appointment, if necessary.
  • Ask the following question: “Would you be willing to write a STRONG letter of recommendation for me for this award/application?” Respect and listen for hesitation or “no,” then don’t press the case.
  • Present your case convincingly, saying, “This is why YOU are the best person to write for me.”
  • Work with the letter-writer: “This is what I hope you will write about. Is that ok with you?” Let each letter-writer know who else is writing and, to the best of your ability, share what the other people will be focusing on in their letters.
  • Provide supporting materials (resume, application, essay, transcript, best examples of your work for this person).
  • Remember that confidentiality is your friend; provide any necessary forms or waivers.

Step 3: Monitoring the Deadline

 

  • Offer clear instructions as to the requirements and how the letter is to be written. Will you need a signed hard copy? Will the recommender fill out an online form or upload the letter via a web portal? This point is especially important if you are asking the same person for more than one letter at the same time. 
  • Make sure you know the difference between on-campus and national deadlines, and communicate these clearly with your recommender. Sometimes on-campus deadlines can allow for flexibility; national deadlines cannot.
  • Send a reminder 4-5 days before the deadline; ask for confirmation if you have no other way of knowing your letter has been submitted. Remind a day or two before the deadline if you’ve not yet received confirmation.

Step 4: Following Up

 

  • Send a thank-you card immediately after your letter-writer confirms submitting the letter.
  • Keep your letter-writers updated throughout the process.
  • Remember to share the outcome of the application with your letter-writers, regardless of the results.