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Guidelines for Requesting Letters of Recommendation

One of the delights in teaching in the English Department, as well as one of our cherished responsibilities, is the part that faculty play in furthering the graduate education, careers, and professions of our alums (see “Where are they now?” for some of their stories) Every academic year, members of the English Department write hundreds of letters of recommendation for students and former students. It is a part of our work as teachers and mentors, and students should not be shy about asking for recommendations. Faculty members take considerable time on the task; write in detail and make every effort to present a candidate in the best possible light. We write different letters, of course, for each individual, letters designed for a variety of applications, including graduate school, law school, medical school, summer fellowships, traveling fellowships, study abroad programs, prizes, employment prospects, and internships. Students, therefore, should do what they can to give faculty the time and information needed to write successfully on their behalf. Here are some guidelines, adapted from those issued to undergraduates at Harvard:

  • Give at least three, preferably four or more, weeks notice for any request. Even if you know that the instructor has a letter already on file, do not assume that it can be changed and quickly printed. Letters may need significant revision best to fit a particular purpose.
  • Include a written statement of the due date and whether it is a postmark or a receipt date. If it is possible to submit the recommendation online, let the faculty member know (most of us prefer this way of submitting letters).
  • Provide a written description of the purpose of the letter and/or a copy of instructions intended for the person writing. If there are multiple letters for different purposes, provide a description for each (e.g., graduate school, law school, traveling fellowship).
  • In line with the above, make sure to provide the instructor with your statement of purpose or letter of intent for each application. This statement is crucial to the success of your application, and it is essential for your instructor to read it when writing on your behalf. If your instructor is willing to work with you on the statement, you should certainly take advantage of the opportunity.
  • Offer to provide copies of class papers and of any other papers directly relevant.
  • Fill out any forms as completely as you can. Do not expect the person writing for you to fill out any information that you yourself know.
  • Offer to provide a copy of your transcript (an unofficial one is fine) and a CV.
  • Offer to have an individual conference about the reasons for your application(s). At the very least, explain these reasons either by including a written statement or by including a draft of your project or statement of purpose submitted with your application.
  • Include fully addressed envelopes for each letter and affix sufficient postage.
  • Make certain to fill out any waiver request, either yes or no, and sign the waiver if you are submitting a paper form. This is easily missed.
  • If you email requests for letters along with attachments, it is often helpful to print out everything and give or send all materials to the person whom you are asking to write for you.
  • Never assume that a letter can be faxed or e-mailed at the last minute. This can put you at a disadvantage in your application and put unacceptable constraints on the person writing on your behalf.