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Asking for Letters of Recommendation

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Potential employers, scholarship committees, and graduate school admissions committees depend heavily on recommendation letters to gain insight into applicants' personal strengths, character, and accomplishments. This kind of information cannot be readily gleaned from transcripts and test scores. So it is in your best interest to help your recommenders write the most accurate and detailed letters possible.

Start Building Relationships Early On

Even if you won't be applying for jobs, scholarships, coterms, or graduate school for quite some time, it never hurts to focus on building strong relationships with your professors from your very first year. After all, the strongest recommendation letters come from people who have known you a long time!

Smaller classes make it easier for you to get to know a professor. Consider applying to an IntroSem, which has a guaranteed small class size. If you're in a large class, you can still get to know your professor, but it may take a little extra effort on your part.

Whether you're in a large class or a small one, one of the best ways to build a relationship is by taking advantage of your professor's office hours. You can talk about the class they're teaching, about your shared interest in a particular field, or even about your professor's own career path and how they got to where they are today. We know that talking to faculty can be intimidating, so check out the additional tips at the links below if you're feeling nervous.

Once you're acquainted with faculty members through coursework, research, and other ways, don't let those relationships fade! Consider stopping by office hours once a quarter to discuss your interests and keep in touch. Faculty members often enjoy visits from former students and watching them develop over time, so don't feel self conscious about suggesting a catch-up!

Connecting with Faculty
How to Email a Professor

Asking for Letters

When the time comes, you need not feel shy about requesting a recommendation. All faculty members had the same service done for them in the past and they regard this as a familiar process. Refer to the following guidelines for managing your letter requests.

  1. Consider what you're applying for. Coterms and graduate schools often want to see rec letters that come from people who have taught or mentored you in an academic setting. And they place the highest value on letters that come from tenured or tenure-track professors rather than TAs, lecturers, or instructors. On the other hand, jobs and fellowships may appreciate letters from professors, but may also be interested to see letters from your former employers. Check the application carefully for any guidance they may have on what kind of letters they would like to see.

  2. Choose the people who know you best. Many students wonder whether to ask a "big name" professor who knows only their face and final grade or a lesser-known professor who knows them better. Letters by famous people or well-known scholars only carry more weight if the famous person knows you well and can write a substantial, convincing recommendation. The more detailed and personalized a letter is, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on a selection committee. So ask your professors with the most extensive, personal knowledge of you and your work.

  3. Ask early. It is common courtesy to allow recommenders at least 3-4 weeks to prepare and submit their letters. We highly recommend involving them in the early stages of your application process, while you are deciding how to present yourself in the application materials. Their insights will prove invaluable and they will be well informed of your interests when they write their recommendations.

    Begin your request with a substantial conversation about your interests and goals and then ask them if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. Most likely they will say yes. However, in some cases the faculty member may say no or state that they can only write a recommendation citing certain qualifiers or weaknesses. In that case, you should accept their judgment graciously and consider asking for more feedback about your goals and plan for study.

  4. Provide materials. Once faculty have agreed to write your letters, provide them with copies of your application materials. The following items will help them write accurate and purposeful letters:

    • Copies of key sections of the application brochure, describing the nature and purpose of the scholarship, internship, graduate program or other opportunity
    • A copy (or a draft) of your application essays, or a summary of your career and educational goals
    • A description of pertinent work or research experiences
    • A copy of your transcript
    • A list of your activities (sports, organizations, leadership and volunteer positions)
    • If a number of quarters passed since you worked with a recommender, also provide a copy of your final paper or class project
    • If not clear from the above, consider writing a paragraph for your recommender that explains why you are a good match for the opportunity and why you are interested in it. If there is relevant information your recommender needs to write a good letter, make sure that they have it
  5. Write out all submission instructions and deadlines. There should be no question as to when and where to submit the finished letters. If the letters are to be sent physically, be sure to provide properly addressed, typed, stamped envelopes to your recommenders.

  6. Consider using a dossier service. Even if you don't plan on going to graduate school immediately, it's a good practice to ask your professors to write you letters of recommendation during or shortly after your time at Stanford, while their knowledge of you is still fresh in their mind. You can use a dossier service like Interfolio to store your recommendation letters and then send them out at a later date. If more than a year has passed, we recommend reaching out to your recommenders to ask if they might be willing to refresh your letter: at the least, updating the letter's date up top, and perhaps adding a line or two about what you've been up to since graduation.

  7. Keep in touch with your recommenders. After submitting your application, send recommenders a thank-you note expressing your appreciation for their guidance and support. Update them on your progress throughout the stages of the application process and inform them whether you are selected or not. Should you need a recommendation in the future, this kind of follow-up communication will continue to foster a close, positive relationship with your faculty sponsors.

See Also

Return to the Advising Student Handbook