Letters of Recommendation (LOR) are one of the scariest parts of the application process because you usually don’t know what they say before you send them.
Before You Ask: You need to lay the ground work
A letter of recommendation will be strongest if it is coming from someone who genuinely knows you and can speak well about your talents. This kind of relationship takes time to build, and in many situations you have to be deliberate about it.
Assuming we’re taking about professors, you need to…
- Get an A in their class(es)
- Spend time getting to know each other
- Take multiple classes with a professor (if possible)
- Do a large research paper or project for that professor (if possible)
The most important thing to do is get to know your professor and let them get to know you. If your professor’s have office hours, take the time to visit! What do you talk about when visiting professors? Anything!
You can ask for clarification about readings or homework. Even if you don’t really have questions or concerns, discussing the material is always a good idea; you never know when you’re missing something.
You can ask about your professor’s career path in order to get guidance for your own; try something along the lines of “Hi Professor! As you know, I’m hoping to go to grad school next year. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how you picked a program and what it was like applying for you.” Ask about research opportunities (if that’s something you’re interested in!)
Once I emailed a professor a few test review questions and asking if I could stop by her office. She answered that she was working from her home, but that she lived very near to campus. She invited me to drop by. I was super nervous, but it turned out to be a great experience! She answered all of my questions, and I even stayed another 20 minutes or so while we enjoyed a cup of coffee and chatted about her career and my plans. She later went on to write me a letter that helped me win a Fulbright Grant and four years later when she found out I was applying to graduate school, she offered to write one of my recommendations!
My point is that professors are people and academia is a small world. If your professor is in the field of SLP, the chances are she knows someone where you’re applying; she is recommending you to her colleagues, mentors, or even friends. Professors want to really know and trust in the people that they’re recommending for graduate school.
Who To Ask & Being Strategic
When asking for letters of recommendation, there is a tendency to simply pick whichever professors you like the best. Sometimes that’s an okay idea, but it is probably better to think about it a little.
First, you have to have done well in the professor’s course and you have to have a decent relationship with him/her. After that, you want to think about what that professor can focus on based on your relationship.
Consider major areas like:
- Academic Ability
- Aptitude for Research
- Suitability for Field
- Writing Ability
All professors should be able to speak directly to your academic ability, but perhaps your senior thesis (or capstone) advisor can elaborate on your aptitude for research. If you worked on any major team projects in class, a professor commenting on that is valuable because grad school will definitely involve working closely with others.
When I won my Fulbright fellowship to teach in Mexico, one of my recommenders was my senior thesis advisor who wrote extensively about my research experience and my interest in Latin America. Another recommender wrote about my expertise with the material I would be teaching. My final recommender wrote about her supervising my teaching practicum. The three letters built perfectly on each other to cover all areas of my application.
When To Ask:
Timing is everything. Your applications are probably due in late December or early January. You need to give your recommenders at least a full month to write you letter minimum. If you can ask earlier, do it! It will mean better letters for you and your recommenders will get them quicker.
I suggest asking your recommenders in August or September. Most people will begin asking in late October or early November which is when professors get busy and will either 1) write a lower quality letter because they’re swamped or 2) have to say “No” because they’re swamped. Either way, it is not a situation you want to be in. Ask EARLY!
How to Ask:
If you have a good relationship with the recommender, this should be relatively easy. If you can, schedule a face-to-face meeting time. Start of with something along the line of, “As you probably know, I’m planning on going to graduate school next year.”
Next you’ll want to subtly give the recommender a reason why they should recommend you and also a suggestion for the focus of their letter (note the word subtle). Something like, “I worked very hard in your course _______ and earned an A. I especially learned a lot from ________.”
Finally, you ask: “Based on all that, would you be willing and able to write me a positive letter of recommendation for graduate school?”
It is important that you say positive letter because you do not want a lukewarm letter. Hopefully your recommender will agree. If they say they cannot, kindly thank them for their time.
After You Ask: Preparing Recommender Packets
If you’ve never done it, writing Letters of Recommendation is time consuming process. It is made more time consuming and even frustrating by those who ask “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” and then assume the recommender will take care of the rest!
You should always put together a packet of information and tools for each of your recommenders. The packet should contain…
- A cover letter to the recommender (details on what this should say below)
- A copy of your personal statement(s)
- Your grad school resume
- A list of schools your applying to
- Instructions on how to submit the LOR for each school (addresses, names, etc)
- Deadlines to submit for the recommender to submit the LOR to each school
All of this information, especially your resume and personal statements, help the recommender get to know you and your motivations for applying to grad school. Hopefully, they’ll also be able to pick up on major themes in your essays and complement them in their letters.
The list of schools, instructions, and deadlines are so valuable to the recommender because without them submitting the letters is a bit of a headache. And a bit of advice, set the LOR deadlines several weeks in advance of your actual deadline.
The Cover Letter in the Recommender Packet
This can be a great tool for helping to shape your letters of recommendation, and it doesn’t have to be long and it should definitely not be assertive. A short, semi-formal (depending on your relationship with the recommender) letter thanking them for their time and suggesting some talking points for the letter.
For example, you might write, “Based on your supervising my clinical experiences, I’m hoping that you’d feel comfortable including some positive observations from that in the recommendation. It is something I feel only you can comment on, and I think it would help my application.”
It is important that you’re not too assertive in suggesting things for many reasons. People have egos and they might be offended. Many times professors already know what is best to write about. Finally, they might have thought of something else to write about but now you limited their scope with your suggestion.
While You’re Waiting & Managing the Process
Most letters of recommendation are submitted electronically. You’ll probably give the recommender’s email address to the university and they’ll send the recommender a link where he/she can attach or upload the letter.
Once you’ve sent these links to your recommenders, check with the school every few weeks to see if the letters have been submitted. Don’t panic if they haven’t. Remember this takes time. Note, you should be checking with the school at first. You don’t want to annoy your recommenders. On the flip side, don’t annoy the school! Secretaries, administrators, and other people who answer the phones often have enormous influence on who gets in and who does not.
Once the deadline is near (maybe 4-6 weeks away) it is okay to politely remind your recommender.
Personally, I keep an excel doc with the schools I’m applying to in rows and each element of my application in columns. Once I’ve confirmed that its done, I check off that box. This might be a simple way to manage the process for you!
When They’re Done, Say Thank You
After all your letters have been submitted, you owe your professor a huge thank you. Trust me, I’ve written letters of recommendation for my students in the past, and it is a huge time consumer getting in touch with each school and personalizing the letters.
Minimum you should deliver a handwritten, sincere thank you card. Especially in academia, it would be quite rude not to send a thank you note.
Personally, I try to think of an extra detail to accompany the thank you note. For example, a small box of chocolates or a special coffee mug filled with sweets. These kinds of things are obviously not required at all, but are definitely meaningful and memorable. You never know when you’ll need another recommendation!
Credits: Featured Image courtesy of Freepik AirMail and Cambridge University.