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FAQ - Letters of Recommendation

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Whether you're applying for graduate school, a job, or a summer internship, chances are you will need letters of recommendation from professors who know you. Here are some tips that will help make this process easier for you and them, and get you the best possible letters to help you reach your goals.

1. WHOM should I ask to write a letter?

The best and most obvious choice is a professor who gave you a good grade in a class (or better yet, more than one class) and has been impressed by your academic performance. Ideally, the professor should also be able to comment on your creativity and personality. The instructor of a seminar course is a good choice -- but any upper-level course (especially one requiring a paper) should give you a good opportunity to distinguish yourself and establish the kind of relationship that will result in a strong letter of recommendation.

2. WHEN do I start asking for letters?

As far in advance of your application deadline as possible. If you are applying to graduate school, one month before the deadline should be an acceptable lead-time. Do not wait until the last minute. This is practical as well as courteous; if you wait too long to make your request, the person may not have the time to write a letter or complete a form.

3. HOW do I go about asking for a reference?

See the professor in person during their office hours. Only send an e-mail message if you are writing from out of town -- but definitely don't leave a note in their mailbox or office door saying "I need 3 letters to 3 different universities by Friday." If your schedule doesn't allow you to stop by during their office hours, you should e-mail them to arrange for an appointment. If you are writing, be formal and well-spoken -- and unless the professor knows you well, mention the course(s) you took with them (don't assume that they remember you by name.) If you wrote a paper for the course, it would help to bring a copy to your meeting, or if writing, mention the paper's topic.

4. WHAT do I give the professor when I ask for a reference?

As much information as you can. Include all of the items on the following list.

I. Information about you:

  • A statement of your interest in the program/position (if applying to a graduate program, you will probably be required to write such a statement anyway)
  • Your student record (electronic and unofficial transcripts are fine)
  • Your CV with a paragraph summarizing the key activities / accomplishments that you want to highlight (volunteer work, languages spoken and read, scholarships and awards, etc).
  • A list of all the courses you've taken with the professor, the grades received in those, titles of paper topics, and preferably a copy of one of the essays and comments that the professor wrote on it. This allows the professor to comment on the quality of your work, which is very important.

II. Information about the programs and positions:

  • A description of each position or program for which you are applying. Include all of them in one request, rather than coming back a few weeks later to ask for yet another letter.
  • Application deadlines for each program/position
  • Any forms or specific instructions or questions requested by the program/position for the letter of reference (Cambridge, for instance, requires 3 copies of the letter)
  • An addressed envelope for each letter of reference -- in the case of graduate applications, they should be addressed to the program(s) you are applying to. For reasons of confidentiality, most professors prefer to send recommendations directly to the program, rather than let the student collect them and send them with their application package. Do not put a return address on the envelope.

NOTE: many programs now have a means of entering recommendations online. In these cases, please provide the URL or email address for submission of the letter. For some of these, the professor also needs a password and ID.

5. AFTER the letter has been written, what should I do?

Let the professor know when you hear about your application, whether or not you were accepted. They will appreciate having a sense of participation in your future, and knowing how it all turned out will help them gauge future letters for you and other students.