Ask Emma: Who do I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Talk to professors in office hours; ask recommenders in advance

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ANISSA CHAK

If you’re thinking about applying for graduate school, it’s more than likely that you’ll need to ask a professor or mentor to be a reference. Emma gives tips and tricks on how to go about asking for a recommendation letter.

EMMA LEDBETTER, Evergreen columnist

Dear Emma,

I’m applying to graduate school this year. I feel like I am a qualified candidate — except for my letters of recommendation. It isn’t that I don’t get along with people or people don’t like me; I just don’t know any professors from college on a personal level. I’m a good student, and I get good grades, but I’m not sure how to distinguish myself from a large lecture.

Any tips for getting those recommendations?

Thanks,

Letter-less


Dear Letter-less,

This is a great question, and you are not alone! For a lot of people, it can be daunting to find recommenders in college. Especially if you came from a high school with small classes or where you knew all your teachers personally, large lectures in college can be a hurdle for letters of recommendation. 

My first tip is to brainstorm your options. Do you have any favorite or particularly memorable professors? What interactions have you had with them? This could range from visiting them in office hours to receiving a positive comment on one of your essays. Consider who has made an impact on you as a student and put them at the top of your list. 

Now, if you haven’t interacted with those professors in a while, you may need to continue brainstorming. It is always strange for professors to have students come out of the woodworks and ask for a letter of recommendation when they haven’t seen them in three years. 

Depending on whether that first step gives you a list of options, you may need to step up your game. What classes do you enjoy most this semester? What classes are you struggling in but determined to understand better? Contact those professors via email or in their office hours and talk about your love for their class or your desire to improve. Forming that relationship early on in the semester (read: now) will help you when you eventually ask for their recommendation.

A word of caution: professional schools may ask for letters from different types of people. For instance, they may want academic, personal and professional letters. In that case, you’ll need to focus your attention on not just professors. Be sure you know in advance how many letters you need.

Consider if you have any academic or professional advisers whom you could ask. Additionally, if you have a job and are in good standing, your supervisor is someone you could ask (assuming they aren’t also a student). 

Finally, when it comes time to ask for a letter, give your recommender plenty of time and make your deadline clear. You may even want to tell them a deadline a couple of days before the actual one so you have some wiggle room. 

When I say plenty of time, I mean at least three weeks, if not a month or more. That shows you are thinking ahead and not procrastinating on your application. Sure, some teachers may be able to get a letter written in a few days (shoutout to my high school math teacher), but you don’t want to risk that. Asking late may reflect poorly on you and the letter they submit. 

It’s good you’re planning ahead, but don’t wait any longer. Start forming relationships with professors and others sooner rather than later.

Best of luck!

Emma