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Asking for a letter of recommendation (might.net)
59 points by joeyespo on Oct 27, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments

Good advice. I particularly liked "[W]hat you should ask is, 'Would you be comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation?'"

I picked up another trick when I applied for doctoral programs: as the requestor, prepare sample letter for the writer. You can highlight things she/he may have forgotten or only known cursorily. The writer is under no obligation to use the sample, but (as a writer of such letters for students) it makes the writing process go much faster. (Although, yes, undergraduate students are inclined to be a bit hyperbolic in their self-descriptions.)

as the requestor, prepare sample letter for the writer

A slightly less presumptuous version of this strategy is to provide a bullet list of things they may like to include in a letter. When I'm writing letters I usually ask students for such a list. I wouldn't really want them to draft the whole letter.

Some do, though. Not in my case, but some other professors in my old department asked one of my fellow students to provide a letter. They presumably edited it, but they definitely wanted it as a starting point.

I agree it can be an odd thing if the professor does not request it, so it's probably best to only do it on request.

Great article, and very relevant to what I'm going through right now!

I'm a sophomore undergraduate currently looking to transfer, and I need two letter of recommendations. However, I feel uncomfortable approaching my professors since I don't have strong relationships with any of them. I find it hard since I only have a year under my belt, not allowing me much chance to get to know a professor. And since I have strong grades I haven't had the need to see professors during after-hours, limiting my interaction with them further.

Do you have any suggestions? Will professors understand my situation, and be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation based on my grades, class participation, and strong resume?

Again, thanks for writing this post! Wonderful blog :)

If you've had good class participation and you can provide your resume in condensed, bullet-point form, you should be able to get decent or good (but not great) recommendations.

Thanks for the quick response! I've got one more if you don't mind. This is a question that should definitely be asked on a school by school basis, but I'd be curious to know if it is a common occurrence as well (from your experience as a professor). I have a fair more amount of experience as a software engineer in industry than as a student; is it common for prospective students to ask schools the permission to substitute a letter of recommendation from a professor for a letter from a manager or boss?

It depends on what you're applying for.

For undergrad transfers or a terminal masters applicant, industry recs are generally OK.

For a Ph.D. student, not much more than one industry rec would be commonly permissible, unless they're from an industrial research lab.

For a Ph.D. student, a good industry rec will focus on character, strong work ethic and specific examples of problem-solving ability. Industrial assessment of research potential tends to be mentally damped by the reviewer unless the recommender has a Ph.D.

What I did was basically ask a professor who I knew had a research lab, and ask if there was anything I could help him with. In my experience, most professors have too much stuff to do, and are very open to free labor.

Excellent advice from Matt as usual.

The memories of stressing out over the grad school letters are still vivid after some 8 years. But I did my homework (research with two of the letter writers and TA-ship with the other), and it paid off.

I do remember one episode when a recommendation letter was due at midnight, and I've been emailing reminders to this professor up to the hour the submission was due. He eventually replied saying that his plane was late, and he wouldn't be able to submit until 1am.

It was for a national science foundation fellowship, which I got, so I suppose the late submission was accepted in the end. Fun times.

This sort of advice always makes me sad. So to get a great letter, you need to, at least a year in advance, do independent publishable research with the professor? I try to imagine what sort of undergraduate, say, could do this - one who already earned his degree in the area, I guess... (Reminds me of the high school advice for getting into great colleges, which boil down to 'be a good college student before getting into, you know, an actual college, so you have awesome stuff to put on you resume'.)

The short answer is yes, you need to do this to get great letters.

Strong and frequent participation, interaction and enthusiasm for the subject in class should get you a "good" letter--or at least more than the "She got an A in my compilers class" letter.

You need to do this because you are competing with other students that do this.

What I find upsetting is that so many students have no idea what their competition is up to. And, by the time they find out, it's way too late.

When I read grad school admissions packets, I'm blown away by what some undergraduates have done.

That's one of the reasons I wrote this blog post -- to take the blinders off. Hopefully it reaches some freshman, sophomores and juniors in college and a few high school students too.

I think if you know early on that grad school is something you might want to do, it's not too hard. I started working as an undergrad RA my sophomore year by approaching one of my professors in the spring quarter of my freshman year and asking if there was anything I could do to help out. I basically helped a more senior undergrad with his honors thesis -- I helped run subjects, review papers, collect data in the field, etc. The next year I became co-Lab Manager (I graduated after that year). Many other undergrads did similar work in that lab, and in fact, most of us went on to good grad programs, probably partially on the strength of strong recommendations.

During my second year, I also approached another professor in the dept who was a MacArthur Fellow and asked the same thing, and ended up helping him transcribe and code a bunch of interviews he had done. Wasn't the sexiest work I've ever done, but voila, at the end of three years, I had one very strong letter of rec from one professor (well published), who also reached out through his network to put in a good word for me at CMU, and another rec from a professor who was a MacArthur Fellow.

Granted, I think something that's really cool about my undergrad (UCSD) and department (Cognitive Science) is that they are very open to undergrads helping out in research capacities, but it doesn't seem like something that is out of the reach of most self starting undergrads.

In the working world, most "letters of recommendation" are produced under duress - as in "I will resign without you having to fire me (with the bad morale this will produce) if you write me a glowing letter of recommendation". An A-player will always be happy to arrange references since they are able to and rarely leave on bad terms.

For acedemia, what is wrong with a standard glowing reference?

This post seems geared toward applying to grad schools, many of which receive hundreds of applications. Having to contact hundreds to thousands of references would probably overwhelm most admissions committees. Remember, for grad school, admissions are typically handled by the department, which has fewer people to deal with this stuff.

LinkedIn has become the defacto area for working world recommendations. Granted, people are not going to give you recommendations on there without it being a 'strong' recommendation, and you also have to approve it, so you will never see work-related recommendations that are bad. "Standard glowing references".

The people writing recommendations on LinkedIn are also usually colleagues, they don't have to be your boss. From what I have seen, they are also never produced under duress, since these people writing them may hang out with you outside of work.

These letters of rec may not tell you much, but they will at least tell you the type of people that the candidate has worked with in the past. If they are getting other developers to write letters of rec then they probably fit into a team environment well. If they get their managers to do it, then they probably are well-manageable. Etc., etc.

This is a magnificent site overall in terms of content.. even the other articles. Thank you for posting. Much appreciated.

Thanks for the kind words!

Matt, What would you suggest I do in this case:

I graduated in May 2009 and have been working in the industry for 2 years. I worked with a professor for my senior project. I recently emailed said professor asking for a letter of recommendation, and I received no response. It's very hard for me to know whether he ignored the email because he was not enthusiastic about writing the letter, or because he forgot / did not receive it / whatever. What do you think is the best course of action here? Wait for a week and then send another email? What if he doesn't reply again?

Resend after a week, with the first email below.

If that fails, try again a week later with a fresh email.

Lots of profs (myself included) have a crushing inbox overload. We expect to be re-emailed with critical stuff.

Never take radio silence as a sign of malice when it comes to email. Doubly so with profs.

I'm reading your "Academic job hunt advice" right now, very useful.

Until I read your teaching statement I'd never really been clear on what the hell a teaching statement was supposed to be.

I'm glad it helped!

Honestly, I didn't know what a teaching statement was either.

Fortunately, no one reads them.

Well, to be honest I didn't really read yours either. I glanced at the headings, picked up a few words in the body, and said "Ohhhh, he's just describing the teaching methodology he's used in the past, not providing some general philosophy of teaching". And I was satisfied with that.

What about the situation when professor asks you to write the letter yourself and he will sign it later? Is it a common case in the academic world?

Another case: when it's been a several years after you last contacted your professor or adviser. I would feel somewhat uncomfortable to ask for a letter of recommendation.

Writing your own letter happens, but usually in academia, the prof will request a .txt file to modify/strip the adverbs.

If it's been a few years, update the prof on things you've done since then, how what you learned in their course helped in your job, etc.

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