Advise: On requesting recommendation letters

Many students ask me to write recommendation letters for a variety of purposes, like internship abroad, summer school and most importantly – graduate schools. It’s an important part of our job as academics to encourage younger and aspiring students. Therefore, in general, I am happy to write supporting letters if I know you ‘sufficiently well’. Here are some general tips to follow when you request me (or more generally it may apply to others whom you approach) to send recommendation letters – this information will help me to write better-supporting letters.

  • First, do write a short note requesting if the person you think is suitable to write a letter is willing to do so. When you do so, state the purpose of your application, attach your cv and mention the deadline.
  • In general, write at least a few weeks ahead of the deadline and clearly state what is the deadline. If the deadline is very short – you can still write, but be aware that many mentors may decline even if they feel you are a fantastic candidate.

Once I have agreed to send you the letter:

  • If it’s a graduate school application season, send a list of university, department, their respective deadlines, the program (PhD vs Masters), etc all in a single email.
  • Do send an updated CV every time you ask for a letter – even if I had sent a letter last year for a similar purpose. I would like to know how your cv has improved since last time, so that any modifications to the letter can be done.
  • Provide as much information on what is the recommendation for? And any other relevant information about the application. For example, if you wrote a proposal or statement of interest that is not confidential – share it with me. Share any pdf/link to details of what the application is asking. Sometimes, some advertisements are aimed for specific candidates with certain background (for ex: this conf is aimed for physicists interested in biology, or vice versa). Do point out them to me. A generic letter won’t help the selection to committee decide whether you are suitable.
  • A short note on any specific points that you would like me to highlight about you. It could be about your project/work done with me, about your grades, a new publication/work of yours that I am unaware of, or anything that you think will help your application. If you are applying to unusual programs (e.g. Masters in conservation biology but your background is in mathematics), tell me reasons for the same. Such information is very important and useful for me to write a good supporting letter.
  • Do not hesitate to remind me whether I have submitted the letter. Check the status at least a week, and a few days before, the deadline.
Some places (in Europe I think) as for recommendation letters to be sent via student herself/himself. As a general rule it’s not a good idea to have the letters sent via your own application; I think it actually weakens it (certainly in the way we write, and how they read). Always ask if there is a way professor can send it directly to them.
Finally, let me know the outcome of your application because I am curious to know, and am also interested in making sure you succeed. Moreover, its a basic courtesy to inform the outcome (even if its negative) to someone has invested time in writing a letter of recommendation. A negative outcome may also help your referee to improve the letter the next time you ask him/her.

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