How to get a good letter of recommendation

By Jennifer Winward

After teaching college classes and tutoring high school students over the past two decades, I have been asked to write and have written hundreds of letters of recommendation. The way students have requested my support has varied widely. Consider this email request for a letter of recommendation from a past college student: “Hey, Jennifer. I took your class. I got an A-. I have a letter of recommendation due in two weeks. Thanks.”

Another time I received a notification from a university that I’d been listed as the professor writing a letter of recommendation for a student who’d never asked for my permission before providing my contact information.

Yes, applying to colleges and universities—both for undergraduate and for graduate studies—is a marathon not a sprint. There are tons of moving parts. Students have to keep many balls in the air.

And while the letters of recommendation may not be as important as GPA or standardized test scores, they do play a key role in helping admissions officers get an idea of an applicant’s personality, persistence, and passion. In short, these letters are important.

What can you learn from the ill-thought requests above? Here are five dos and don’ts to keep in mind when it comes time to ask for letters of recommendations.

Do find the appropriate person to ask:  First be sure to always ask for people’s permission before listing them as references. Then, ensure the letter-writer believes in your abilities and knows what makes you unique. You definitely don’t want to be the one who says, “Hiya, I sit in the back of your class and never participate. Can you write me a letter of recommendation?” Do you think this teacher will want to set aside time to do you a favor when you didn’t make a favorable impression in class? Teachers are paying attention. Engage with them and show them you are someone who is committed to learning, who asks intelligent questions, and who is intellectually curious.

Don’t ask for a letter at the last minute: Asking for a letter of recommendation is like asking for any other favor. Remember, your instructors will spend at least an hour composing the letter of recommendation so give them the courtesy of framing your request in a respectful, appreciative and thoughtful way. Also, if you give them enough notice then they will be more likely to not only say “yes” but also do a great job. A last minute plea will not only annoy and alienate the writer, but it will also lead to a sub-standard letter. Nobody wins. Rule of thumb: Give the writer at least a few months’ notice. 

Do include a personal statement: Ideally, the letter writer will know you well and have plenty of positive things to say without much prompting. But it never hurts to share your personal statement that includes your accomplishments and passions. It’s the details that make the recommendation stand out which will highlight the writer’s relationship with you. Another point to be made: this is your request, not that of your parents. It is not appropriate for your parents to demand a letter on your behalf. (No, I’m not making this up. I really get emails from parents asking for letters for their kids.)

Don’t tell them what to say: This one is a little tricky, because it seems to contradict the previous tip. Think of the personal statement as a way to give the writer a broad outline about who you are and what’s important to you. But avoid telling the writer exactly what to say; that’s just bad manners. And, most teachers are going to know how to pen an effective letter of recommendation. This isn’t their first rodeo.

Do say thank you. Writing a thoughtful letter of recommendation takes time. And odds are you aren’t the only one asking. Most teachers write dozens of recommendations, if not more. Be sure to let them know that you appreciate their time and effort. You spent years building a strong relationship. Don’t risk ruining it by forgetting to send a handwritten note with a sincere thank you.

Dr. Jennifer Winward is a renowned instructor at the University of California, San Diego, an 18-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy, an award-winning education company​. She earned her Ph.D. specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning.

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