How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation

‘Tis the Season

This is the time of year when teachers and faculty are asked to write letters of recommendation. This winter has been typical: I’ve written 4-5 letters for grad school, 3-4 letters for people applying to faculty positions, 2-3 letters for undergrads applying to summer research programs, and another handful for folks applying for positions in industry.

Obviously, if you’re a student asking for letters of recommendation, you want the best letters you can get. The dirty little secret is that letters of recommendation are hugely important and can overrule bad grades and all manner of other sins. Certainly, if you are applying to graduate school, your letters can be the single most important part of your application. Even so-so letters can be lethal.

In a word, you want strong letters. These are letters that make a compelling argument in your favor.

Many recommendation letters are mediocre — they don’t leave much of an impression, and definitely don’t help. A whole bunch of blah, blah, blah. Worse, some actually hurt you by damning with faint praise.

I’m going to tell you how to get the best possible letters of recommendation. I’m going to focus on how to get a great letter of recommendation for graduate school or an undergraduate summer research program. But much of the same advice applies when applying for faculty and postdoc jobs, for fellowships, and in other contexts, as well. Pretty much any scenario where you’re expected to get letters of recommendation from faculty.

How To Pick Your Letter Writers

Of course, you want letter writers who know you well. But that’s only the start and may not even be the most important thing.

You want your letter writers to be the people who are best positioned to write you strong letters for whatever you are applying for. If it is graduate school, this means you want letters from faculty. Graduate programs want to know if you will be able to do independent research. They expect you to be able to work in the lab or out in the field. The same goes for summer research programs. There is a very particular set of questions they want answers to, and your letter writer needs to know to address them.

Faculty have been through the grad school grinder. They know what it’s about and what grad programs are looking for. Faculty have advised students on research projects. They know what it takes. Letters from your boss or minister talking about what a hardworking person won’t cut the mustard. If anything, such a letter might make the admittance committee think you really have no idea what you’re getting yourself into!

In fact, I’ll go farther. If you are applying to graduate school in plant biology, then all (or at least most) of your letters had better come from people with a Ph.D. in plant biology! They will have credibility and will be able to speak directly and knowledgeably about why you will do well in a plant biology graduate program.

A letter from your calculus professor won’t be as helpful. Being a math grad student is very different than being in the lab sciences. When I applied to graduate school I had one recommendation letter from a professor in a different area than I intended to study. I had done a summer research project with the professor and thought it would be a good person to write a letter. I’m sure it was fine, and it didn’t hurt, but it also probably didn’t help as much as I thought it would.

Ideally, you’ll have 3-4 professors who are in the field you’d like to study who have had you in multiple classes, or worked with you on research projects, or otherwise know you well as a student and researcher. If you’re applying this year, then you’ll have to make do as best you can with what you’ve got.

The Number One Rule

The #1 rule for letters of recommendation: If you want a great recommendation letter, you have to ask for one. Click To Tweet

Wrong: “Professor X, will you write me a letter of recommendation?”

Right: “Professor X, I am planning to apply to graduate school. Would you be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation on my behalf? I know you are busy, so if you don’t have time or don’t feel you can write a strong letter, please don’t hesitate to say so.”

Professors can be a non-confrontational bunch. If you ask for a letter, they are more than likely going to agree. That’s great, right? No! Death is a half-page recommendation letter that says (with some filler) “Student X was in my introductory course on Geology. He earned an A.” The message is clear: “Student X was reasonably good academically, but otherwise unremarkable. He’s a dime-a-dozen sort of student and I don’t have much of anything useful to say.”

You want them to know what they are getting in to, and want to make it easy for them to say no if they can’t write you a strong letter. Maybe they don’t think much of you, or they don’t feel they know enough about you, or maybe they don’t have time to write a strong letter, or… There are countless reasons you don’t want to trap someone into writing a letter.

The number one rule of strong recommendation letters: make it easy for potential letter writers to politely say no!

Give Your Letter Writers Ammunition

Give your letter writers all the information they need to write the best letter possible. At a minimum, this should be your transcript(s), a copy of your CV/resume, and a draft version of your research or personal statement, and a link to the program(s) you are applying to. If there is anything else that might be helpful, send copies of those, too.

When I’m writing a letter, it’s hugely helpful (and makes the letter much stronger) if I can give concrete supporting evidence of a point I’d like to make. If I want to say you are someone who is quick to help others, the fact you volunteer for your church might be just the extra tidbit I need. Conversely, seeing that on your resume might spark the idea to mention your helpfulness in the first place!

Don’t Be Shy!

If you hope your letter writers will include specific information, tell them! It doesn’t hurt to say “If you don’t mind, I think it would be helpful if you were to mention my research project with Dr. Honeydew.” Or, even better, to supply a short list of bullet points highlighting what you think are the strengths of your application. Don’t assume your letter writers will notice these things and think to put them in your letter. As long as you make it clear you’re just trying to be helpful and that they should feel free to ignore your suggestions, nobody will mind a nudge or two.

Make Use of Local Knowledge

Hopefully, you know at least one faculty member well enough to ask for their advice about your application. Among other things, show them your long list of potential letter writers and ask their opinion about who should be on the shortlist.

A trusted faculty member can help you figure out which faculty are best positioned to write a good letter and may even be willing to steer you towards (or away!) certain people on your list. Some faculty are known to be good at writing strong letters, and others not. You just might dodge a bullet.

'I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.' -- Blaise Pascal Click To Tweet

Make Your Letter-Writers Happy(ish)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that universities use annoying and poorly designed online systems. This is equally true for online letter-of-recommendation submission systems. There’s not much you can do about this, but you can make it a little less painful.

You want your letter writers to be in a good mood when they write your letter. Do what you can to make the letter writing process as painless as possible. At a minimum, talk to your letter writers at least two weeks before the first deadline. A month is even better.

Send your letter writers a reminder email a week before the first deadline.

Once your group of schools or programs is pretty much settled, send a list of them to your letter writers so they have a checklist. For each one, be sure to include the deadline and the method of letter submission. I find it reassuring to know upfront when and how each letter should be sent.

It’s helpful if you put their name into the application systems all at once so they’ll get all the emails in a group. Faculty get dozens of emails a day and you don’t want a school’s email to slip through the cracks.

A Little White Lie Never Hurt Anyone

Back in the previous century when I applied to grad school, letters of recommendation had to be sent in by snail mail. My undergraduate advisor recommended that I tell faculty the deadlines were a week earlier than they actually were. He was a little annoyed when he found out I used the same trick on him!

Faculty are notorious about missing deadlines. Even today with online forms and email, you should assume faculty won’t submit your letter until the day of the deadline (or even a day or two late!). For your peace of mind, tell them the deadlines are a few days early ;-).

Image from the Met Museum

- Henry

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