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Archive for December 3rd, 2008

 

Sometimes you have to ask a few times.

Sometimes you have to ask a few times.

One of the more difficult tasks of applying to graduate school, any any application really, is finding the right letters of recommendation. It is daunting task asking professors or graduate students to write you a letter of recommendation. Oftentimes it is because we do not know the professor that well or we only interacted with them a few times during a class. But as I was told early on, letters of recommendation are part and parcel of being in academia. 

The best way to ask for a letter is in person as it is both harder to turn down someone standing right there and that way they know who you are. Even if a professor knows your name in class it is because they recognize you as a person, an e-mail lacks the face so they cannot be sure who it is. I believe that e-mailing a photo of yourself with the request might not make the best impression.

When asking in any medium (I have asked over Facebook before) phrase the question so that they have an opportunities to say no. Try a sentence like “Would you be comfortable writing me a good letter of recommendation for [program]”. They may be comfortable writing a mediocre or even bad letter of rec so saying good is important. Also by phrasing the question with “would you be comfortable” lets them say no with a valid reason such as they are too busy or they do not know you well enough.

Good people to ask are those that you have had interactions of some sort with. For my graduate school letters I asked my sophomore lab professor (to show that I excel academically), my research professor (to show I can do research) and a professor I am currently taking a class from since he has lunch discussions every week (to show that I am good a communicating and sharing ideas). Graduate students are also good to ask but it is probably best to have at least one professor sending a letter. It is also best to have the professors writing the letter be in the same field of study that you are applying too, though this may be harder to accomplish.

I found three responses to when I asked for letters:

  • A request for a packet of information such as transcripts, research interests and personal statement like questions.
  • I was asked to write one myself from the perspective of the professor since I would remember what we have talked about better then he has. That was an interesting exercise, it was actually hard to do. Hard to do while trying to sound like a professor.
  • And lastly I have a professor that I need to remind roughly every other day in order for him to write it. Likely he will write it the day before or day it is due. It helps that I expect that

A technique to getting the letters on time is too make up the deadlines. If it is due the twentieth say it is due the fifteenth so when it is a day or two late it is actually on time. This is risky as if the instructions give the due date. Alternatively you could just say that you would prefer to have it by a given date. This depends on the professor.

Before asking I would recommend writing a short summary of what research you are interested in. Follow this by a list of the schools you are applying to with departments, for each school write up the instructions for each one with addresses to send the letter. Even if you can include it in a packet some professors prefer to mail them directly. I am guessing this is so we cannot bug them until they give it to us.

Of course try to give professors at least three weeks between asking and the first deadline. Because it will take at least a week to organize the material with them and then a week or two for them to get around to writing it. 

Letters of recommendation are probably one of the most important aspects of an application. If you are going to be applying in a year or more try to develop relationships with professors so they really know who you are when they write the letters. If it is your senior year and have only a quarter don’t worry too much, I have only known two of my recommenders since September.

Remember that the gap between undergraduate and professor is not as big as it seems to be, in the end they are people like the rest of us.

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