The Ebony Tower’s Guide to Securing Great Recommendations

by Daphne M. Penn 

One of the most stressful aspects of the graduate school application process, heck any application process, is asking for letters of recommendation.  If fact, I know quite a few people who postponed applying for grad school and/or fellowships because they felt uncertain about securing recommendations.   I remember having a conversation with a friend (cough: The Ebony Tower’s Whitney) who wanted to apply for a fellowship. She mentioned being unsure about asking certain professors for a recommendation for one reason or another. She hadn’t spoken to one them recently, she wasn’t sure if another professor had known her long enough to write a good recommendation, and since it was approaching the application deadline, she wasn’t sure if her third recommender would have time given personal circumstances.  Her apprehension about asking for letters of recommendation was fueled by the belief that she would be bugging them.  She was essentially ready to pass on an amazing fellowship opportunity because she was too worried about inconveniencing someone else.  While I’m sure professors appreciate when a student is considerate of their time and life beyond the academy, most professors also likely view recommendation writing as an everyday part of their job.  Moreover,  if they actually like/care for a former student or mentee, they’d probably think the student was ridiculous for not asking.

Just know, you can still be considerate of your potential letter writers without sacrificing or delaying opportunities that could propel you to the next level. Below is The Ebony Tower’s guide to securing excellent letters of recommendation.

  1. Don’t just email your potential letter writers when you need something from them.  The stress related to whether or not too much time has elapsed for you to ask for a recommendation without looking trife can easily be alleviated if you send your letter writers an email one or twice per year to genuinely ask how they are doing.  It doesn’t have to be long and drawn out; a simple “hey, how you doing? My life has been great” email would suffice.  Now for those of you who plan to submit applications in December, you might want to think about sending the “you remember me? How are you?” email this month. Don’t mention the letter you plan to ask them for in two months; just give them a chance to think about how awesome you still are without any pending obligations to you.
  2. Give your letter writers ample time to write recommendation.  I typically send my first recommendation request five to six weeks before the deadline.  If possible, I make this request in-person.  Otherwise, I send a nice formal email. I don’t expect they will actually begin writing the letter that soon; this particular email serves as a save the date.
  3. If you’re thinking of asking a professor you’ve only known for a few months, give them a heads up so that they can start paying more attention to you.  During my first semester at Harvard, I knew that I wanted a particular professor to write a letter of recommendation for my Ford Fellowship application.  The recommendation deadline was January 9th, and requesting the letter in late December, after the class had ended, was not an option given strategy number 2. Therefore, I went to his office hours in early November, after he’d had a chance to evaluate some of my work, and indicated that I potentially wanted him to write a recommendation for my application.  I also made it clear that I knew he could only do so after careful consideration; therefore, I wanted to provide him the opportunity to evaluate my contributions in class more critically. Yes, this put the pressure on me to always be on point, but it also let him know that I was serious.  At the end of the semester, he wrote the recommendation and I got the fellowship.
  4. Once a professor agrees, let them know that you will follow up within a specified time period (preferably no more than two weeks) with, what I call, a “recommendation packet.” Daphne, what exactly is a recommendation packet?  A recommendation packet is a set of documents that help make your recommenders’ lives as easy as possible.  It is a document that will make them love you and write the strongest recommendation possible. The packet includes: selection criteria for the department or fellowship for which you are applying, your CV/resume, any application essays, and a list of specific examples demonstrating how to exceed the criteria for admissions and/or the fellowship.  It’s important to note that the examples you write should be tailored to each professor based on what they have realistically observed from you.  For example, if you’ve never taken a class from your advisor, you should not give them an example that speaks to your intellectual contributions in class because it’s something they’ve never witnessed.
  5. As the deadline approaches, don’t be afraid to send a reminder. Roughly two weeks before the recommendation is due, I typically send an informal email updating them on my application status (ex. I just submitted) and expressing how appreciative I am that they decided to write a letter for me; this acts as a subtle reminder.  If the application deadline is just a week away, and they still haven’t submitted, don’t panic; I guarantee that it is still on their to do list.  What you can do is go into your online application, click on the recommendation tab, and resend the notification email to any professor who hasn’t submitted the recommendation.  Not only does this serve as a reminder, but it also prevents them from having to search their inbox for the link to submit.  If it’s within 12 hours of the application deadline and they still haven’t submitted, you can panic a little bit and send a more direct reminder by email.  I typically do not send this reminder because I trust and know that my recommenders will submit the letter, but like most people in academia, they will submit it on the last possible day.
  6. Don’t forget to send a nice handwritten thank you card. It’s the least you can do given the time and effort they put into writing your recommendation.
  7. Finally, follow up with them once you know the outcome of your application process.  If they wrote a recommendation for you, they will likely want to know what happened. Send a quick email with your application status, and don’t forget to thank them once again.

Overall, securing great letters of recommendation can be just as stressful as application process itself, but it doesn’t have to be.  Ultimately, you should make your recommenders’ job as easy as possible, and the best way to do so is by following The Ebony Tower’s Guide to Securing Great Recommendations.

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