Are you applying for a scholarship, internship, job, or graduate school? You’ll likely need letters of recommendation from faculty. As someone who has written recommendation letters for students and requested recommendation letters for my own applications, I’ve seen both sides of this process—and it can be stressful! Requesting letters of recommendation can be intimidating, and it’s often tricky to determine what to include in a request.
To make this easier for you, I’ve reached out to several Wheaton faculty members to hear what they’re looking for when students email them recommendation requests. This post offers tips to guide you through the process.
Carefully choose your letter writers.
Before you ask for letters of recommendation, take time to think about your experiences with several professors. Who has shaped your academic interests? Whom have you repeatedly visited during office hours? Who has given you helpful feedback or advice? I recommend writing down 4-6 faculty members who come to mind.
Next, think about how well each professor knows you. “What is important is how well I know the student, not how many classes I’ve had with [them],” writes Dr. Kristen Page (Biology). Consider which professors have a sense of who you are as a person. With whom have you had extensive conversations, whether inside or outside of class?
It’s also important to select letter writers who can speak to different parts of your experience and strengths. According to Dr. Brian Howell (Anthropology), you should “choose recommenders who can say different things” about you instead of repeating the same information. Ideally, when taken together as a package, your recommendation letters should present a multi-faceted perspective on what you would bring to your chosen program, job, or opportunity.
Coach your letter writers.
Dr. Beth Felker Jones (Biblical and Theological Studies) advises students to “let your professor know why you want them, specifically, to write the recommendation.” What experiences, strengths, or skills can this professor speak to? Dr. Howell encourages students to “coach us on why we were chosen” by explaining what each letter writer can contribute to your application.
In your recommendation request, communicate what you’d like your letter writer to emphasize. Dr. Page asks that students specify whether “they want me to speak to their academic success or improvement, ability to communicate, creativity, and/or their ability to lead discussions and work well with peers.” Has your professor observed you teach a class, conduct a musical ensemble, run an experiment, or present on a panel? Could this letter writer highlight your potential as a researcher, writer, speaker, interpreter, thinker, or leader? Let them know!
Ask well in advance.
“It takes a considerable amount of time to write recommendation letters,” notes Dr. Jim Beitler (English). A good rule of thumb is to ask for recommendations at least 3-4 weeks in advance. If you ask faculty more than a month in advance, feel free to follow up 2-3 weeks before the due date.
Sometimes, online application systems automatically send a request to the faculty you’ve listed as references, even before you’ve submitted the full application. Be sure to reach out to your letter writers before you enter their contact information on your applications.
Streamline the information for your recommendation letter request as much as possible by including it all in one email. Include necessary information, such as the due date, program/job title and description, letter addressee, and the method of submission. Will your recommenders receive email prompts asking them to submit letters? Let them know ahead of time. Sometimes, automated email prompts for recommendations get sent to spam.
If you are working on multiple applications at the same time, request your letters all at once by providing all the details in one place. For example, when I applied to graduate programs, I used this template to share the details of my requested letters with my recommenders. Furthermore, let recommenders know in advance if the same letter will work for all applications or if some applications will require some customization.
Provide enough information up front.
If you don’t provide enough information in your initial recommendation request, professors may not be able to make an informed decision about whether or not they can write an effective letter for you. To make their decision easier, include the following in your request for a recommendation:
- A quick refresher on your connection. Don’t assume that faculty will immediately recall every detail of your shared experiences. Instead, briefly summarize your interactions with the faculty member, both inside and outside of class. Dr. Jeffry Davis (English/Interdisciplinary Studies) asks that students share “things you recall from his class that you hope he will remember about you,” such as a unique conversation or project.
- Your rationale. Explain why you’re applying. Be specific about your rationale and intended purpose. Communicate your enthusiasm! If you’re applying to graduate school, attach your statement of purpose and briefly explain your intended field of study and specialization.
- Your qualifications. Attach an updated copy of your resume or CV. Describe related extracurricular activities or experiences. If relevant, note your GPA (overall and in your major).
- Detailed timeline and logistics. Share your due dates and program information (as noted above).
If you’re struggling to draft an email to request recommendations from professors, the Writing Center can help. Schedule an appointment with one of our consultants to discuss your email draft and potential attachments.
After faculty have submitted their letters on your behalf, follow up with a sincere thank you, whether via email or written note. Later on, if you’re accepted to your program, job, or other opportunity, send another follow-up email to share the good news and again thank your recommenders for their support. Such updates are very welcome and encouraging!
Remember that writing effective recommendations is challenging.
Faculty write recommendation letters for many students each year. If a professor declines your request for a recommendation because they don’t know you well enough, try to not take it personally—instead, recognize that their honesty frees you to request a letter from someone else who may be able to more effectively speak to your strengths.
Generally, faculty are glad to support students by writing letters of recommendation, but it’s important to acknowledge the additional time and energy this adds to their workload. Let this understanding inform your requests. The work you put in to crafting a personable, informative, and organized recommendation request serves both you and your potential letter writers well.
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