Right now, many of you are getting your courage up to ask 3 of your professors to write you letters of recommendation for graduate school or for some other program next year. Don’t be bashful! Writing letters of recommendation is part of your professors’ job. It’s something we must do for students. However, we are not required to write you a strong letter, of course. That’s why I encourage you to ask your professors directly if they can write you a strong letter. If they say no, then you can simply thank them and politely let them know that you will ask someone else.

Also, I don’t recommend setting up a meeting with your professor to ask for the letter. Just ask them in person after class. Emailing them your request is fine, too. The reason is that if your professors met with every student they recommended, they would have little time left to get to the submissions. Try to give them 4 weeks advance notice before the first letter is due.

Here are a couple of key things to consider to maximize your chances for a great letter:

1. Ask someone who knows you really well. Yes, it’s nice to have someone famous or high on the faculty totem pole write you a letter. But you need a long, detailed letter for it to be good enough to compete with the other amazing letters of recommendation out there.

I felt bad last week that I had to tell two students that I couldn’t write them a strong letter because I don’t know them well enough. I used to be able to fudge a bit for students I didn’t know that well and still write them a pretty good letter. But nowadays letters get submitted online. Thus, recommnenders are required to rate how mature, reliable, creative, independent, insightful, intelligent, and interpersonally skilled you are compared with your peers. Plus, we have to comment on your writing, leadership, and oral-expression skills. If we put NA (not applicable) in those fields online, your letter will not be a strong one.

2. Ask a professor who has never seen you fall short of your standards on any dimension. When recommenders rate you online, we have to put these ratings in percentiles. So if you have missed even 3 unexcused seminar days this semester, these absences could put you in the bottom 20% for reliability compared to your classmates!

3. Get your materials organized to make it easy for your professors. Give them a statement of when and in what capacity they have known you. Tell them your career goals. Give them a brag sheet of your key accomplishments, so that they will be better informed about how wonderful you are and can work those details into a letter about you. Give them a list of complete addresses for the sites that must receive a hard copy and a list of the names of sites that will be sending an email prompt. Make sure your lists are complete, so that your recommenders can check their list and see that they are finished with your submissions.


Okay, that’s it for now. I have a lot more to say on this topic in Chapter 12 of my new book, The Clever Student: A Guide to Getting the Most from Your Professors. But you won’t be able to order it through for about another week. So please, post your comments and questions now, and I will address them as soon as I can.

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