How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation – Part II

So, who do you ask for a Letter of Recommendation?  Your research mentor? Definitely! A humanities professor you took a class with? Maybe. A science professor from a senior-level course in which you performed exceptionally well? That sounds like a good bet! Your supervisor at the supermarket where you work part time? Only if you are applying to the School of Supermarket Sciences. An adjunct instructor from one of your lab sections? It depends, and we will talk more about that in our next installment.  For this second part of the series, we’ll explore tips to ensure you get a stellar letter of recommwriting1endation.

You want your letter writers to showcase all those characteristics that make you uniquely qualified to be a successful individual in the path you choose to pursue. How do you make sure they know about these qualities? Here’s some advice about that and other topics:

  1. Ask them if they need any materials or information to write your letter.  Make sure they have the guidelines for the particular institution you are applying to and ask them if they need a CV or resume, transcripts, or even a copy of your personal statement. Make it easy for them to write about you. Tell them if there is anything you want them to include (like how you helped struggling students with their class, or your level of aptitude with techniques in their field). Make sure they know where you are applying, to what program, and why you chose that program. The more they know about you, the more they can use to make your letter unique and not just generic.
  2. When to ask – it depends.  For applications to graduate school, you should begin asking for letters before the end of the fall semester prior to applying to graduate school. For medical school, if you are planning to ask for a committee letter, you can ask anytime during your time at John Jay (the best bet is right after you receive your grades at the end of the semester), and your Pre-Health Advisor (aka, Dr. Sanabria-Valentin) will save them for when you are ready to apply.
  3. Give them enough time to write the letter. Do not leave it for the last minute, you don’t want your letter writer to do so in a hurry! Asking them 3-4 months before the application is due is your safest bet. Asking too late puts unnecessary pressure on your letter writer and makes you look like someone who does not plan ahead, and that is NOT the impression you want to give to someone writing a letter on your behalf.
  4. About waiving your rights to read the letter. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, and it applies to recommendation letters. This means that you have a right to read any recommendation letter. Should you exercise your right? Waiving your FERPA rights shows your letter writer that you trust them and that you have no doubts in your own abilities, so it is a good idea to be upfront about it. Some letter writers will insist that you read the letter before it is submitted to make sure they didn’t get any details wrong. That’s OK, even if you waived your right. Some will require you waive your FERPA rights. That’s OK too, especially since they answered “Yes” when you asked them if they could write a strong letter on your behalf (see part I). Some letter writers won’t even mention reading the letter, and it is your call if you want to bring up your preference.