How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation – Part I

typingA strong letter of recommendation (LoR) from a faculty member, research mentor, or employer goes a long way in gaining admission to professional school. Admission committees look at these letters to evaluate candidates because the selection process is not all about grades and entrance exams scores, the committee members also want to learn about you from their colleagues. They expect that letter writers will provide an honest assessment of your abilities, competencies, and, most importantly, their opinion on how well they expect you will perform in your chosen profession. Most graduate schools ask for 2-3 letters and provide clear instructions about the content they expect in the letter. Medical and other health professional schools ask for either a number of letters or a “committee letter” provided by the institution. In this first post of a series, here are tips on how to get great LoR:

  1. Think of every professor as a potential letter writer. At the start of the semester you won’t know how well you will fare in your classes or if you will want your professor to write you a letter, so your best bet is to go into every class thinking of your professor as a potential letter writer. Make sure your instructors know who you are and that they notice the effort you are putting into the class. Participate during class and use the office hours when you need them.
  2. Only ask people that KNOW you.  Make sure your letter writer knows who you are and what class you took with him or her. Otherwise, it will not only be an awkward conversation (“Who are you again?”), but, if he or she accepts to write it, the letter will also be vague and generic at best.
  3. When you ask, ask if they can write a STRONG letter of recommendation.  Just because your instructor says yes it does not mean they will write a glowing letter. By asking them directly, you give your professor the chance to back out gracefully if they feel they don’t know you well enough.
  4. Ask in person.  If it is possible, ask during office hours or make an appointment to meet and ask them then. If not, email is the next-best method of communication. Do not ask a potential letter writer in the hallway or right after class, as they are likely on their way somewhere else.
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