How to Get Recommendations

Borrowed, almost verbatim, from Dr. George H. Williams’ “My guidelines regarding student requests for letters of recommendation” and from Dr. Betsy Bolton‘s guidelines.

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. 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. Give me a due date (yep, here’s your chance to give a professor a due date—pretty neat, huh?).
  6. 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 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).
  8. To help me write a strong recommendation, please send me informal responses to the following questions:
    1. What are you applying for and how are you framing your application? (DO NOT just send a link! Please share a description of the program/position plus any materials you are sending—especially personal statement, resume, writing samples, etc. Let me know if you want feedback on these documents and suggest a deadline for that feedback.)
    2. What specifically is drawing you to this position or program? (How can I talk about what makes you a good fit? If you’re applying to multiple graduate programs, let me know if there are particular programs/people that you especially hope to work with and why: I will try to add comments to those specific letters.)
    3. When you think about the work you did in my class or classes, what makes you most proud? (This could range from particular claims, interpretive insights, argumentative structure, presentation skills, etc. to persistence and commitment as demonstrated in office hour visits or otherwise, the ability to take and apply feedback, group facilitation and more.) Please attach any relevant papers, projects, or a portfolio so that I can quote from them directly. (Feel free to point me to what you see as the best bits, if you have a sense of what those are.)
    4. What are you hoping my letter will cover? (Think about who else is writing for you, and what they will cover. What gaps might need to be addressed, even if they’re not obviously part of what I might write about otherwise?)
    5. What stories help bring you to life for an admissions or selection committee—stories that you don’t have room to include in your own materials? (Think about times you’ve risen to unusual challenges or otherwise demonstrated relevant skills and traits. Give me a quick snippet of a story and I can try to weave it into my letter. Of course I will be writing about your work in class, but selection committees like to see you from multiple angles.)
    6. Organize me! Please remind me of any deadlines a week ahead and prompt me (gently) every few days until the rec is submitted.
  9. When submitting my name to application portals, please enter all my data, including my full name, title, and contact information. Here’s the info you need:
        • Suzanne W. Churchill, Professor of English
        • PO Box 6927, Davidson College, Davidson, NC 28035
        • (704) 894-2695
  10. Please give me all the details about where the letter needs to go: A contact name and email address, or web address if it is to be submitted electronically.
  11. Finally, please let me know how it turns out! Whether it’s good or bad news, I’m here for you. I’m glad to support you and eager to hear your stories.