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Letters of Recommendation

As you apply for jobs, programs, internships, or grants, you may be asked for letters of recommendation. To help you reach your goals here are some suggestions to simplify and guide your requests for these letters. Students should realize that the business of writing letters of recommendation is time consuming. All of the suggestions in the paragraphs below are intended to make it easier for your professors, who will appreciate your consideration on this score. You should also be mindful that requests for recommendation letters generally come to professors in the final few weeks of a semester or academic year. These are busy times for faculty. Hence, it is incumbent upon you to make this process go smoothly and without any unnecessary hitches. The best way to impress your professors and secure their support would be to make sure you have done each of the following:

1. Be timely: Make your request well before the first deadline you face, and then supply all necessary forms and/or e-prompts several weeks in advance. If you can, cluster all information and requests into a single batch. Give your professors at least two weeks to work on each recommendation.

2. Do the work for your recommender: If there are forms, either print or online, fill out as much of them as you can (for paper forms, write in plain, neat, block, black-ink). Make sure your name, address, and all relevant information are included in the form. Look over the entire form to make sure you have not missed anything, such as your signature or social security number.

3. Envelopes: If envelopes are needed for print forms, as a cordial gesture of convenience, supply them, stamped, addressed and standard size. Write your recommender’s information for the return address. Again, use your neatest, plainest handwriting.

4. Be organized and neat:  If you are applying to several schools or programs, keep things well organized. Print materials should be sent in a bunch with paperclips, post-its, etc. Whether for print or online recs, provide all recommenders with a chart-like cover-note listing all the schools, degrees, their deadlines, submission methods, etc.

5. Give “spin:” So the recommendation can appropriately be inflected, supply recommenders with an early draft of your personal statement. Don’t delay: it’s OK if your draft statement is sketchy: after all, it’s a draft! Include your resume too.

6. Update your recommender: If it’s been a while since you’ve been in good contact, email them your resume and a brief description of what you’ve been doing since last you were in good touch. Email a recent photo as well – it’s nice to keep touch!

7. Sign the waiver: Nearly all forms include a question that asks you whether you waive access to the recommendation letter. If you do not waive access, schools will put much less weight on the letter because it is not confidential. Most professors will not write a different letter if you do not waive access, but many will not write a letter unless access is waived. If you have concerns about what the professor will say, raise your concerns with the professor before the letter is written.

8. Know the standard practice: Recommenders will normally write you one full recommendation letter for any given class of schools: for example, all law schools, all graduate programs, all medical schools, etc. We answer the short questions we are asked directly (such as “in what percentile would you rank this candidate?”), but the bulk of our views are contained in the general letter. We can, given time, customize this for a specific target school (or, for example, fellowship) in exceptional circumstances.

9. Give a report of results: Once you hear from your schools or programs, tell your recommender how you fared, application-by-application. There are two reasons for this. The first is that your professors are thrilled to hear good news and glad to commiserate where things do not work out. The second is that getting detailed feedback from students’ “win-loss” experiences helps enormously in advising successive rounds of students. Your report will serve many Mac alums to follow.