Advice on the Etiquette of Requesting

Recommendation Letters from Your Teachers

Adapted from a letter to students from a teacher

 

Letters of recommendation are a critical part of the college admissions process. Every year, faculty and staff churn out hundreds of letters that claim our students to be truly outstanding and deserving of admission to some of the best universities and colleges.

Recently, however, many faculty and staff have noticed a breakdown in “asking for a recommendation” etiquette, and this will no doubt affect both the amount and quality of letters we write for our students.

1.  Students are not entitled to letters of recommendation

Students are not entitled to letters of recommendation. Writing a recommendation falls outside the realm of our professional responsibilities. Many of us enjoy writing letters for our students, but it is important that students understand that writing one letter often can take over an hour—taking time away from our professional and personal activities.

2. Always ask for a letter of recommendation in person

Why bother with etiquette? Put yourself in the shoes of the referee.  Try to anticipate that she or he will likely receive requests for the same deadline from other students.  A well-written letter is like a well crafted essay:  both take a substantial amount of time, varying amounts of research or preparation, and extensive editing and rewriting.  The best letters are composed with the student in mind, but are also mindful of the particulars of specific graduate programs, grants, or fellowships

Always ask for a letter of recommendation in person. Leaving forms or notes in mailboxes is bad manners and most likely will not get you a letter. Having your parents ask for a letter on your behalf is not a good idea. How can we possibly emphasize your preparedness for the independence and responsibility of college when your parents are doing your work for you?

Do not send email. You might approach the recommender with: "I am in need of a recommendation for (fill in the blank) and I wanted to ask if you would feel comfortable giving me a recommendation?" Remember is that you are asking for something which you hope will say something good about you. So the first thing is to ask for the letter in such a way that you will leave room for the person to say no if he or she does not feel comfortable giving you a heartfelt positive recommendation. This is to your benefit because you do not want to be "damned with faint praise."  If the answer is no, then be grateful for the honesty, say thank you, and move on. 

3. Provide all of the necessary information in an organized manner

Provide all of the necessary information in an organized manner. Faculty and staff are not responsible for gathering materials or completing parts of forms that are to be filled out by you. Carefully read all materials before distributing them.

Organize all materials so that your referee has all the necessary information and forms together for each program at the same time. Always include an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for each letter.  The return address should be the teacher’s at school, and all envelopes should be typed and stamped. Include any official forms -- be certain to fill out all necessary blanks. If you are using a common application, fill one out neatly and indicate how many copies will be needed once the teacher has filled it out.

4. Ask Sooner Rather Than Later

If you are considering asking for a letter, do so as soon as possible. Some faculty and staff have no time to write letters during the school year and prefer to write them during the summer before your senior year. Some put a limit on the number of recommendations they will write. Some may ask you to prepare specific information that will be included in your letter. It is not reasonable to expect a letter a week after asking for it, and those who ask early usually have their recommendations completed first.

5. Say Thank You!

Most likely, you will be asking for recommendations throughout your life. Get in the habit now of thanking the person that writes your recommendation. A written note of appreciation is best. Also, once you begin hearing back from schools, return to the teachers who wrote your recommendations and let them know!  

6. Assess Your Behavior Now and in the Past

Think before you act. High school is where your choices begin to catch up with you. Your grades and behavior in middle school did not keep you from coming to __________, but your lack of effort in a sophomore course or neglecting your club or team responsibilities may keep you from getting into the college of your dreams.

“I am not an A student: Am I Doomed?”

 No, of course not. As long you have been a good citizen and put in effort, you can still score a super letter!

7. Ask Someone Who Knows You

A referee is more likely to write a strong letter if she or he knows your work well, has worked closely with you over an extended period, and has been given time and material with which to produce an honest, well-documented, supportive letter.

Select your recommenders carefully--will they remember you?  Will they have positive and interesting things to say about you?  (Don't expect them to write a letter if you made few contributions to class, or if you attended infrequently, and so forth).  

Which faculty should you ask to be your referees?
Remember the audience who will read your letters; generally, they will be most interested in the remarks of a professional like themselves, though you may also want a boss to write one for you, or a counselor at the place you volunteer. Request letters from the teachers, coaches, bosses who know your work best and will write the best letters.

9. The Letter of Recommendation is Not For Your Eyes

Sign the waiver. Do not ask if you can see the letter. It is up to the writer to make that choice. Letters of recommendation are generally confidential, and you can not expect to pick up the letter or see it. The recommender will mail it directly. Do not expect to be notified.

10. Refresh the Memory of the Writer

In a short cover letter, remind the teacher what your unique outstanding traits are, how you did in their classes, what you enjoyed most about their class, any memorable moments, what your long-term goals are, and other things that might help to jog their memories.

If the teacher has given you a form, be sure to give details that were asked for. Enclose a transcript (an informal one is adequate) that you have highlighted to draw attention to all classes you have had with your referee.  Also highlight your grade point average (gpa) in your major field of study and your cumulative gpa. If you want a letter that says more than, "She was a good student, who earned an A," you should be ready to supply your recommenders with

Include a detailed CV (curriculum vitae, an academic resumé) including your GPA, GRE scores, language skills, any online portfolio URLs, and ANY awards won, papers given, writing published (even if in the school newspaper, etc), or academic honors you have earned.  Provide your letter writer with concrete examples of things to "brag about!"

11. Gentle Reminders

The next thing you need to do, once your recommender agrees to write your letter, is to offer reminders and current updates on yourself: i.e. bring in old papers or projects that he or she graded, offer information on your activities (especially if you haven't been in contact for a few months or more). Many teachers will ask you to fill out a form, others will ask you to provide a CV. Be specific about what you would like the writer to address--reliability, punctuality, particular skills, personality traits, creativity, etc. Remember that your recommender has a lot of other things on his or her plate and that yours may be the 25th letter in a list of 40 or 50. Trust me, that happens. For an original and memorable letter, making this effort is important.

Of course you have given your writer ample time to write the letter--a minimum of three weeks. [Some teachers need more time, especially teachers who get burdened with college essay help.] Again, your recommender will have a very busy schedule and sometimes slotting the time to write a letter takes several weeks.

You may check in with the writer a week before the due date and offer a friendly reminder. This is a touchy time. You do not want to appear pushy or demanding. But you do want to make sure that the letter gets out on time. Perhaps couch it as an advance thank-you for the service rendered. Perhaps offer a further update of your activities.

12. Uh-Oh. The Letter’s Not Done

So the date rolls around and the letter isn't ready. What do you do? Politely remind your writer of your due dates and your need. Though your recommender has already agreed to write the letter, courtesy says that you may not make demands of your writer.

Schools often lose letters and claim to not have received them. Don’t assume your teacher has not written the letter.

Remember:

  1. Do not make demands, even if the writer has agreed to write the letter.
  2. Be friendly, polite and offer reminders of yourself and your work
  3. Do the extra legwork yourself--go to the office of the writer, make arrangements in person
  4. Provide postage for letters which need to be sent
  5. Do not rely on email
  6. Say thank you

Writing recommendation letters is hard work, and can take several hours for each letter. Everything you do to make the process easier and quicker will result in a better letter. Give your referees correct contact information (telephone, e-mail, and address) where they may contact you with questions as they write.