How to Get Recommendations

Borrowed, almost verbatim, from Dr. George H. Williams’ “My guidelines regarding student requests for letters of recommendation.

Writing letters of recommendation is one of the most satisfying parts of my job. It’s a way for me to reconnect with you, my former student, and play a part in your bright future. It’s a chance for me to reflect on how much I admire you and to craft a narrative that communicates your distinctive talents and accomplishments to the world.

Nevertheless, it can quickly get out of control—not just the time spent crafting the letters themselves, but the correspondence back and forth to negotiate all the details and information. Plus all the paperwork and electronic forms, filling out names, titles, addresses, dates, etc…

So, if you’ve asked me for a letter . . .

  1. Please take the time to read what follows, since I’m going to be taking the time to write for you.
  2. BEFORE you ask me for a recommendation, think about whether I’m the best person for the job. The first thing I state in any recommendation letter is how long and in what capacity I’ve known you. If I’ve known you as an advisor but never taught you in a class, or if I’ve taught you in lower level course but never seen your advanced work, my testimony may not be convincing—no matter how much I like, respect, or admire you.
  3. Please ask my permission BEFORE you submit my name to any institution or organization.
  4. Please give me at least two weeks of notice (if you don’t, I may not be able to produce the letter). Three or four weeks would be even better.
  5. Please give me a due date (yep, here’s your chance to give a professor a due date—pretty neat, huh?).
  6. Please remind me what courses you took with me and when. If you’ve saved any papers or projects from these courses, send scans of them, ideally with my comments on them.
  7. Please tell me something about why you are pursuing the program, award, honor, or opportunity. The more you can tell me the better, and the more generous and enthusiastic you are with your own prose the more I’m likely to be with mine. Do NOT send me a link to a website and expect me to explore it myself. Instead, take the time to write a few sentences about the program and why you are interested.
  8. Please send me in advance, as attachments in one email, everything you will send with your application. A personal statement, if you have one, is especially helpful in this regard. Let me know if you want my feedback on the personal statement and give me a deadline for that, too.
  9. Please let me know if you are pursuing other opportunities at the same time, even if you don’t need me to write recommendations for them. Full disclosure is always preferable to having me learn, through some roundabout route, that you were also applying for MBA programs when you told me a PhD in English was your lifelong dream and heart’s desire. I won’t judge you for having multiple interests and pursuing different opportunities, but I would like to know what they are.
  10. Please respect my decision if I say no: I will only write for students I feel I can endorse strongly, and trust me, you don’t want a lukewarm letter. I will tell you if I don’t think I’m the best person to write your letter. In such cases, it has little to do with how fabulous I think you are and more to do with what courses you’ve taken with me and whether I’m the best person for the job (see #2).
  11. Please give me all the details about where the letter needs to go:
    • An email address or web address if it is to be submitted electronically—double-check that these are correct. Whenever possible, enter my full name, title, and contact information into the sites where you submit my name. If you take the time to enter this information, you leave me with a lot more time to work on the content of your letter. Here’s the info you should enter:
        • Suzanne W. Churchill, Professor of English
        • PO Box 6927, Davidson College, Davidson, NC 28035
        • (704) 894-2695
    • A stamped, pre-addressed envelope if it is to go out in the post. If there’s a particular person to whom the letter should be addressed tell me that too. Forms, envelopes, and other paperwork can either be mailed to me at the above address, or brought to my office (Carolina Inn 204). Fill out these forms with the above information.
  12. Please send me an email reminder a couple of days before the recommendation is due. If you’ve asked me well in advance, I welcome weekly reminders. It’s always nice to hear from you.
  13. I generally do not let students read the letters of recommendation I write for them; a letter that has not been reviewed by a student will carry more weight with the person or people who read it. Don’t worry: I will not agree to write a letter of recommendation if I do not plan on writing positive things.
  14. Finally, please let me know how it turns out! Believe it or not, once I’ve taken the time to write your letters of recommendation, I’ve become invested in your future. It’s discouraging to hear nothing back, or to learn of your fate from another colleague. If by chance you don’t get what you applied for, I’ll be there to help you find another opportunity that’s a better fit for you. When you do get what you applied for, I’ll be celebrating with you.