Asking for Recommendation Letters

Summary
A checklist to follow when asking for recommendation letters for graduate school or job applications.

For this checklist, I'm assuming you're a college or grad student.

Asking

  • Most importantly: always ask 3 to 6 weeks in advance. You don't need to have all your materials prepared so early; just ask first. If you ask too late, you're putting people in a really awkward position to say “No” or to do it on short notice and feel resentful.
  • Who should you ask? My opinion, which is biased more toward Ph.D. admissions but may work for masters programs too:
    • Best: professors whom you've worked with (e.g., as a research or teaching assistant)
    • Good: managers from other jobs, even if they're outside the university (this still shows you're a responsible professional)
    • OK: graduate students or other staff you've worked with (Note: some professors are willing to have them write your letter and submit it on their behalf if they approve)
    • OK/Bad: people you worked with before you started college
    • Bad: professors whom you've only taken a class with (these provide no useful signals beyond that you got a grade)
  • Don't be shy about asking, as long as you do it 3–6 weeks in advance. Nobody will ever get mad at you for asking. Just ask!
  • Make sure to select the confidential option for your letter and waive (give up) your right to read it; otherwise most people will not feel comfortable submitting a letter.

Consultation

  • As soon as you confirm your letter writers, send them an email with a list of schools/programs/jobs/etc. you're planning to apply to. Then ask them for advice on whether you should add or remove any from your list. This is very important since your letter writers will often have good insights on whether you should apply to more places, fewer places, or whether a certain department/program isn't a good fit for you. You will seriously save yourself some major headaches (and money in application fees!) by consulting your letter writers first. Do this now!
  • Optionally, ask if you can meet with your primary letter writer (the one you know best) to consult on where you should apply.
  • Especially for Ph.D. applications, it's very important to consult with your letter writers since they can help you strategize which research areas to put down to highlight your strengths and also which professors to mention in your application; there are lots of behind-the-scenes subtleties that you're not aware of but your letter writers know well. So consult them!
  • Finally, look into application fee waivers for as many places as possible, since those fees can add up fast.

Google Drive and Spreadsheet

  • Create a Google Drive folder and set sharing permissions so anyone can view it. Name the folder with your name:

  • Inside that folder, create a Google spreadsheet using this template. Again, name that spreadsheet with your name, and replace the cells with the schools/jobs/etc. you're applying to and your letter writers' names.
  • Now set the spreadsheet's sharing settings to "Anyone with the link can edit" so your letter writers can edit it:
  • Here's how your letter writers will use this shared spreadsheet: whenever they receive an email request for a letter, they will mark that cell with Yes; and whenever they submit a letter, they will mark the adjacent cell with Yes. This allows both them and you to track which letters have already been submitted.
  • When you're ready later on, add more relevant files into this Google Drive folder, such as:
    • your latest resume
    • your application statement or personal essay
    • a description of what work you did with each letter writer, to remind them about what they could include in their letter
  • Update the contents of the Google Drive as you refine your applications over the coming weeks.
  • Why is putting your name on everything so important? Because your letter writers are writing for many other students, so you want them to clearly see who you are when they open your docs.

Email Reminders and Updates

  • Open your Google Drive link in an Incognito/Private browser tab to make sure someone can access your files without any login (see my Alice example); if your letter writers can't access your files, they'll get very very annoyed since they've allocated a specific time to write your letter and can't make progress on it. (Remember to also test that they can edit your spreadsheet.)
  • Now send an email to all your letter writers to give them the Google Drive link (which you've tested in an Incognito/Private tab!) and remind them of the earliest submission deadline.
    • Don't include other info in that email, or else it will get lost. Put additional info in clearly-labeled docs in that Drive.
  • Two weeks before the earliest deadline, send an email reminder with the Google Drive link (so they don't need to hunt for it).
  • One week before the earliest deadline, send another email reminder with the link.
  • As later deadlines approach, send more reminders as you see fit.
  • Don't be shy about sending polite reminders; they already agreed to write your letter, so they won't get mad ... unless they've told you not to send email reminders :)
  • Note that some letter deadlines aren't so strict (while others are); an experienced letter writer will know which is which. Don't panic if some of your letters seem to be coming in “late” ... as long as they arrive before applications are reviewed, you're fine.
  • Once all letters are sent out, send a thank-you note to all your letter writers. Also, once you get into your dream school or job, send them a note again to tell them where you'll be headed!
    • Some people are uncomfortable accepting thank-you gifts since it might be viewed as a conflict of interest, so be mindful of that. Kind words alone go a long way :)

Appendix: related resources


Created: 2019-12-19
Last modified: 2019-12-19