Letter of Recommendation Etiquette
Prof. Britt Abel

As you progress in your studies, you will need to ask for letters of recommendations for internships, fellowships, study-abroad programs, grad schools, jobs, etc.  How should you best handle such a request?  Here are some tips.

The Golden Rule:  you are asking someone to put in significant time and work on your behalf, so respect that.  Do everything you can to make the process as easy as possible for your recommender.

  • Ask politely and without assuming a positive response.  Provide the basic information, but don’t include application materials or links–just give a general overview of the application at this first stage.
  • Ask far in advance (4 weeks is best, 2 weeks at the least).
  • AFTER the writer as agreed to recommend you, provide thorough and well organized information, including a document with all the information needed for the letter:  name of organization, name of position, due-date, format, person to whom the letter should be addressed, address of the institution, any links with info, etc.  Yes, that info is all available online, but don’t ask or expect your recommender to go looking for it.  Make sure everything is at their fingertips so they don’t have to spend time searching for specific details.
  • If your recommender is writing for multiple applications, make sure all the information is organized in one document and easy to access.
  • Have you narrowed down your field for your applications?  It is common to write letters for multiple grad schools, but you should narrow your list of internships, fellowships, etc. to the ones that are best suited for you.  If you have questions, make an appointment to get advice from your advisor or recommender.
  • Provide all your application materials to your recommender.  Yes, that means you have to have those done early.
  • If you have asked far in advance of your deadline, send a polite reminder to your recommender one week before the due-date and ask if they need any additional info from you as they finish their letter.
  • Respond quickly to any questions or requests for further information.  Monitor whatever form of communication you are using with your writer (like email) so that you can respond to any queries within 12 hours (if not sooner).
  • Respond promptly to ANY communication from your recommender.  If they confirm they have submitted a letter for you, quickly say thank you.
  • Handwrite a thank-you note after all the applications are submitted.  You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) wait until you have heard back about the results of your application.
  • If the recommender has gone above and beyond for you (written a large number of letters or accepted a last-minute request), you might consider a small gift as a token of your thanks.  It’s not necessary, but it might be a nice gesture.
  • Keep your writer posted about the application process.  Don’t drop off the face of the earth.  Even if you don’t get the response you hoped for, let your writer know promptly and thank them again for their efforts on your behalf.  Never let your writer hear about the outcome of the application from someone else.

One final note:  your recommender has already had a good experience working with you—otherwise s/he wouldn’t be willing to write for you.  Your goal is to do everything in your power to preserve that goodwill and good working relationship.  Although writing letters of recommendation is part of a professor’s job, you are still asking for a favor of sorts, since no professor is required to write for any specific student.