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Department of Philosophy

College of Arts & Sciences

How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?


Overview

Students ask for letters of recommendation for myriad reasons, e.g., they want to apply for a job, for graduate school, for law school, for medical school, or for special external forms of funding (fellowships or grants), and they believe that the recommendation will help them secure such a goal. Students should ask only those faculty members with whom they have worked closely or with whom they have taken classes. Unbeknownst to students, there is a protocol or series of guidelines one should follow in asking a faculty member for a letter of recommendation. The reason one should follow these guidelines is that the time faculty have to devote to writing letters of recommendation is limited by other obligations they have to the profession, the university, the college, and the department.

In what follows, I give some guidelines a student must follow if they would like for me to write a letter of recommendation.

What should I do now to ensure that you write me a good letter?

It's never too early to build rapport with me. Attending my office hours and asking questions (making comments, etc.) in my class is a way to make a good impression upon me. Other means of ensuring that I write you a good letter is inviting me for coffee to talk over your current project, get involved with my research (this is especially true if our research interests overlap), keep in contact with me even if you're no longer in my class, and attend philosophy department events regularly.

Should I write a letter for you?

Students should ask me to write a letter for them only if they have worked closely with me on a research project or they were a member of one of my classes. Working closely with me on a project or being a member of one of my classes is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for my writing a letter of recommendation for you. Students should ask themselves whether my letter will serve your particular purpose well. Think of it along the following lines:

  • If you're applying for a non-academic professional position (i.e., a summer job), it might be more appropriate for you to ask a counselor, a current or former supervisor, resident assistant, church leader, volunteer coordinator, etc. for a reference. I, as your academic supervisor, am not in a good position to evaluate your professional credentials.
  • If you're seeking special external funding outside of the academic discipline of philosophy, it might be more appropriate for you to ask a person with a specialization in that particular field. Receiving a letter of recommendation, for instance, from a philosophy faculty member supporting your application for the Ren & Stimpy Digital Media Fellowship might be received as a bit uncouth.
  • It is appropriate to ask me for a recommendation addressing your academic accomplishments and experiences, and when applying to graduate or professional school, for academically oriented scholarships, academic internships and research or teaching assistantships.

 

Once you have identified me as a good candidate to write a letter of recommendation, schedule an appointment (do not just drop by my office) with me and ask, "Do you feel you know me well enough to write a letter of recommendation for me in support of my application for [insert particular position / program / school / scholarship / etc.?" Moreover, you might ask me whether I would be able to write you a good letter of recommendation. There is absolutely no harm to ensuring yourself that I will write you a letter where I set you apart from other candidates.

When should you ask me to write the letter?

The easy answer is: the sooner the better. Ideally, you should give me at least three to four weeks, but never less than two weeks, to complete the writing of the letter of recommendation. I am very busy and likely have other obligations to fulfill. So, asking me well in advance of a letter's coming due is a good idea. You want to be courteous and respectful to me, especially if you're seeking a good letter of recommendation. Plus, rushing me might lead to a recommendation that isn't polished or as positive as it could be.

Consider implementing the following strategies if you are concerned about your letter of recommendation being completed on time:

  • Give me an early deadline. For example, if the letter is due December 15, let me know that you will need me to prepare the letter by December 1 or at least two weeks prior to the due date. The letter can then be easily printed, signed, and placed in a sealed envelope for you to place in a complete application packet, or it can be uploaded to a particular website or sent via email to appropriate recipient.
  • Follow up with me in person or via email at least one week before the letter is due. Doing so will allow me to ask any additional questions of you about your application packet or additional information you might want me to include in the letter.
  • Ask to me to notify you by email when the letter is ready to be sent or uploaded.

 

What information should I include when I ask you to write a letter on my behalf?

I will need to know a few things about the position, program, scholarship, etc., for which you are applying, and I will need to be reminded of a few things about you in order for me to write a letter of recommendation.

  • Regarding the position, program, scholarship, etc., I will need the following information:
  1. Please provide me with the name of the position, program, school, scholarship, etc. and a description or brief summary of relevant information about it. Tailoring each letter is very important;
  2. The name and title of the person who will receive the completed letter, if known. "To whom it may concern" is impersonal, and the inappropriate use of Miss, Mrs., Ms., Mr., Dr., etc. can be offensive;
  3. The address or website for the organization to which you're applying;
  4. The date by which you need the recommendation, and if you will pick up the recommendation personally, or would like it to be mailed, emailed, faxed, or submitted online; and
  5. If applicable, a reference form with your information already typed in and signed.

 

  • Regarding you, I will need the following information:
  1. Please send me an updated resume or curriculum vitae listing research experience, education, courses taken (or in-progress), or other items you feel are relevant for me to write you a recommendation;
  2. If you have taken an upper-division or graduate-level course with me, then you likely received at the end of the course a summary of your performance on class assessments. I will need that to remind me of what you did in the class that made you stand out against other students. Similarly, you will want to re-submit to me the assignments you completed for my course, e.g., weekly assignments, short- and term-paper assignments, and any other assessments I required of students in the class; and
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the reason for why you're asking me to write this particular recommendation, as well as a list of who else has agreed to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. This will help me adjust my comments in important ways.

 

What should I do after I ask you to write a letter?

Be gracious. Look, I don't have to write you a letter of recommendation -- it's certainly not a part of my job description. So, please thank me in a personalized note that extends your gratitude for my writing a letter of recommendation. (A handwritten note is often more deeply appreciated than an email.) If you do this, I will be more inclined to write you another recommendation letter if asked again. Finally, keep me informed of your progress. I really would like to know if you got the job, the scholarship, admitted to the graduate or professional school, etc.

Prepared by: Joseph Ulatowski
Last updated: 25/6/2013


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