Applications are daunting. They take a long time to complete and right when you’re at the finish line, the giant jigsaw puzzle you have been working on for months will still be missing a crucial piece out of your control: Recommendation Letters.
What Is a Letter?
Recommendation letters are like the icing on a cake for an application, they give insight into who you are from a perspective other than your own. Unfortunately, most letters are generic. Selection committees want to see that they are there, but, much like your test scores, they are only a piece of data for most. Still, they need to be there, and when these letters are sterling, they will help an applicant shine out above the rest.
My advice when asking for a letter is to ask EARLY! I am talking months early. Your professors probably won’t get to them until the day they are due–even professors procrastinate, but if you’ve given them ample time, they will almost always get the job done. Guilt is a powerful tool; just kidding.
Okay, so you have to ask early–tattoo that to your arm–but how do you ask? My favorite line when asking for a letter of recommendation came from my time in the McNair program. You can ask in-person, in an email, or over the phone, but always ask this way: “Will you write me a strong, positive letter of recommendation?” Most professors will not say no to you if you ask them to write you a letter. They want to help. If you ask them to write you a “strong and positive” letter, however, they may take the time to think if they are a good fit for you.
When a selection committee reads your letter, you want the letter to reveal you in a lime light. You want the voice of the letter writer to flow out with passion. You do not want a letter that says: “I didn’t really know so-and-so but they got an A in my class.” This is a worse case scenario. With that said, ask people you are close to. Don’t ask the professor with a big name that doesn’t know you. Ask the professor you have worked intimately with. Ask someone who has a personal investment in your future.
At the end of the day, ask your favorite professors. You like them, they like you, and, most importantly, they will want to help you.
Also, do not be afraid. It is only a letter. It is not the end of the world, and the professors won’t give you a hard time about them. It is their job to write letters. Still make the process as painless as possible. Say thank you, even if the deadline is quickly approaching, always be cordial, and remember to remind them politely. It is okay to pester the faculty to write the letter, but only if it is done politely. Even though it is their job to write letters, it is not their job to write good letters. Just like everything in life, they have to want to do that.