For professors, writing letters of recommendation is a constant part of the job. Wise undergraduate and graduate students should make it as easy as possible for your professors to write them. Although few professors will write overtly negative letters, faint praise can just as easily condemn an applicant, especially when they are applying for highly competitive programs or jobs.
I frequently see letters of recommendation that are vague or flat-out sloppy. Some seemed rushed or obligatory. Some fail to change the name of the school to which the student is applying, or they contain basic spelling or typographical errors. Many of these problems are solely the fault of the professor, but students can take some steps to help ensure better recommendations. Here are a few tips.
1) Explain what the professor should emphasize. If it is a graduate or professional school application, what particular details should be front-and-center? Why are you asking this professor to write a letter, in particular? Likewise, if it is a fellowship or grant application, explain what the granting agency or archive is looking for, precisely.
If it is a teaching job application, what kind of school is it? Teaching focused? Research intensive? Secular? Religious?
2) Give the professor reminders about how you did in his/her class. Especially if it has been more than a semester since you took the class(es), you should remind the writer when you took their course. Ideally, you should offer to give the professor a copy of a research paper or similar assignments, to refresh their memory about what kind of work you did for them. When professors see dozens or hundreds of students a year in courses, they don’t remember the details of most students’ individual performance. Sending them a current c.v. also helps, especially for graduate students’ applications for fellowships or jobs.
3) Give the professor plenty of time to write the letter(s). Ideally, you should ask about a month ahead of time. You might, however, want to touch base with a professor immediately after successful completion of their course, to give them a heads-up that you loved their class and would like to ask about a letter of recommendation eventually.
Perhaps you can send them an e-mail with about 3 or 4 days left, saying in effect “I am sure you remember this, but the deadline for the letter is December 1. Let me know if you need anything else from me to write it. Thanks for your help on this!”
Put yourself in the professor’s position. Do not give off even a whiff of entitlement about their writing you a recommendation. Most importantly, make it simple for them to write you a great letter.
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