The Right Way to Ask for Recommendation Letters

The Right Way to Ask for Recommendation Letters.

Be sure to check out my Recommendation Letter Planner and my Sample Email asking my professors for recommendations! These can be found under the brand new “Resources” tab!

Asking for recommendation letters as you apply to internships, jobs, research programs, scholarships and graduate school can feel awkward, especially if you need recommendations for 8 different schools, an internship and a fellowship all at the same time. You might feel like you are nagging or taking too much of someone’s time, but it is important to remember that it is part of a professor’s job to support you as you transition into the next phase of your engineering career.

 It can also be overwhelming to manage deadlines, requirements, follow-ups and trying to figure out who to ask and whether their letter will give you an edge. Here’s the trick to all of this…lay the groundwork before you even need a letter!! In this post, I’ll share how to do this to set yourself up for the perfect “ask” when the time comes. Now, if you have an application due in two weeks and you don’t have the time to lay the groundwork, that’s okay! There are still strategies to make sure your recommender writes you the best letter possible.

If you are starting early, maybe a few months ahead of application season, you just started a new class or met a new advisor, this is the perfect time to start building a relationship with them. Why do you need a relationship? If your recommender knows your goals, involvement and passions they can write a much stronger argument about why you should be accepted into a program. Sometimes these relationships come naturally, and you may already have a professor who can vouch for you, but it can also feel awkward if you have only taken some gen ed classes or never really gone to office hours. Luckily you can use the strategies below to approach a new potential recommender.

  1. Ask them to review your resume. Send them an email with something like “ I am looking to apply for internships next spring and I am wondering if you could take a look at my resume, and let me know if there are any areas I could work on to make my applications stronger” If they accept, this will likely spark a conversation about what your goals are for the opportunity you are applying for. (If it doesn’t, you can direct it this way)
  2. Go to office hours. Even if you are doing great in the class and don’t really need any help, stop in and ask for clarification on something, ask how you can improve your class project you are working on. This gives them the opportunity to see how you think.
  3. Ask if there is a time you can see their lab or learn more about their research. This takes a little more work on the front end. You should have some idea of what their research is what why they are doing it, but it will likely also open up the opportunity for you to ask some insightful questions and share things you are interested in.

Once you have your person or people in mind, you need to get organized about what applications you are asking them to write a letter for. It is ABSOLUTELY okay to ask for a lot of recommendation letters but it is not such a good idea to email them every week and say “Here’s one more” “Oh wait here’s another” “last one I promise”. Collect the deadlines for all of your applications and send them ONE email as described below.

The ask! Make sure when you are ready to ask for letters of rec you include the following:

  1. The ask – Don’t assume they will write the letter, you actually need to ask. Make sure to acknowledge that they are busy and that you understand if they can not commit the time to writing and submitting the letters *This part is better in person*
  2. The list. Let them know what you are applying to and how the opportunities align with your goals.
  3. Tell them what to include. This will look something like “Could you write a letter that speaks to my involvement in SWE, my research experience and the communication skills I have demonstrated during class presentations? My experiences are detailed in the resume I have attached” It is super important to make sure different areas of your achievements are covered by different recommenders. For example:

    Your Internship advisor can talk about your internship. If they don’t know anything about your involvement in student organizations don’t ask them to talk about it!
    A professor is a great person to talk about on-campus involvement and your work in classes but they probably don’t know every detail of your work at your internship so don’t ask them to cover that in their letter
  4. Your Resume – This is the most important one. It doesn’t matter how well you know the prof, they don’t know every detail of your involvement and achievement. Include a longer resume that speaks to everything you’ve accomplished. It is also a good idea to include your cover letter or personal statement.
  5. Opportunity specific requirements – If one of your opportunities asks for specific criteria be sure to include that. For example, the NSF GRFP application asks for letters that speak to your Intellectual Merit and Broader impacts. Ask your recommender to use these specific words or even separate those parts into their own paragraphs.
  6. Deadlines – At the bottom of the email in the form of a list (the clearer the better) include each opportunity you are applying for and the deadline.
  7. Let them know how they will be reminded – Typically the application site will send them an email once you enter their information. Let them know this. Then remind them 1 week ahead of each deadline if they haven’t already submitted.
  8. Thank them – Say thank you for their time, acknowledge how much their recommendation helps you and how grateful you are to have them as a mentor, professor, etc.

Once you send this email, it is okay if one or two more opportunities creep up, but try to batch these together so you don’t overwhelm your recommender. 

The next step is to follow up! You can typically see if a recommender has submitted their letter. If it gets to be one week away from the deadline and they haven’t submitted, reach out and remind them.

Taking these steps encourages your recommender to write the strongest letter possible. They can be a strategic way to cover your experiences that didn’t fit in your personal statement or have someone else reinforce your strengths in a certain area. So, what steps will you take this application season to strengthen your recommendation letters?

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