By: Jordan Traut
Asking a professor for a letter of recommendation can feel a bit overwhelming, especially when you know it has been a busy semester for faculty at the university. However, it is important to advocate for yourself. In this post, I will illustrate a few ways to strike a professional balance between going after what you are entitled to and being courteous when asking for a letter of faculty support or recommendation with the “Five Ts.” That is—Teacher, Time, Tone, Type, and Technicalities.
Teacher: This one is a no brainer but choose your professor wisely. Beyond providing evidence that what you claim is true, letters of recommendation are an excellent chance for your prospective employers or grant committees to see if you make smart choices and have maintained your professional relationships.
You do not want to be the candidate whose letter starts off, “I was surprised this student reached out to me for a recommendation…”. It is difficult to come back from a poor faculty support letter. No one wants to work with someone who does not have positive reviews from their superiors, although chances are you will not get along with every professor you meet at the university. Therefore, it is best to skip the professor whose class you ditched every other Monday. Ask a faculty member who wants you to succeed. Then, be sure to provide them with the information they need to help you shine.
Time: It is not always possible to give your professor a month’s notice for all letters of recommendation, although some internship programs and grant applications do provide ample time. If you can give a professor one month in advance, be sure to respectfully check in with them around the two-week mark to ensure they have everything they need from you. Anything more than a month might lead to your professor shelving your letter for more urgent duties and forgetting about it.
Two weeks is also reasonable, especially if the letter only needs to be one page. This is the case for most letters of funding support. In a crunch, you can give one week’s notice, but I would recommend bringing your professor a coffee and an apologetic explanation as to why you could not reach out to them sooner.
One thing you should not do is tell your professor that they can take however long they need to get to your letter, especially if you need it by a certain date. We always want to remain polite and be considerate of faculty’s busy schedule, but it is always better to be clear about the due date so your professor can let you know you will need to find someone else to write the letter. This will also avoid panicked emails the day before the letter is due and then submitting a frantic recommendation because your professor assumed they had more time.
Tone: I could tell you to be extra polite in your initial email, but I think being professional is a better choice. (Sending an email—by the way—is the best way to go about asking for faculty support because your professor will have the ability to go back and reread for reference while they are writing.) Be assertive and clear. Going back to my earlier point, it can be confusing if your language is so polite and flowery that your professor thinks they have much more time than they do.
Be kind and appreciative. For example: “Good morning Dr. Pfannenstiel, I hope my email finds you well. Would it be possible for you to write a letter of recommendation for me by July 10th, 2022? I am applying for Sponsored Program’s grant writer position and thought you could provide my prospective employer with valuable information about my successes in your Digital Portfolio course as well as detail the numerous scholarships I received for my proposal writing. Attached is my resume and a copy of the application. I highlighted the relevant information. I really appreciate your help with this but understand if you have too many other commitments. Please let me know by this Friday either way. Thank you.”
There is no need to sell yourself short in your email either. Beyond it being the faculty’s job to write letters of support, you deserve to have a successful career and be awarded funding for your scholarly projects. That is your job at the university, and it is one you cannot always do alone.
Type: It is critical you understand what you need and then ask for it specifically. A letter of recommendation for a job application is significantly different than a letter of support for a grant application. Clearly state what kind of letter you need.
If, for example, you are writing a grant proposal for the AHSS student fund, let the faculty member know that they will need to explain how your project aligns with current curriculum in your program. Support letters for the SGRCA must include the university letterhead and a signature. In the same way, recommendations for jobs and internships have different requirements and components you must pass along to the professor.
Do not assume they will read your entire job application before writing. Although, it is always beneficial to attach whatever you are applying for, so your professor knows who and for what they are recommending you.
Technicalities: Include details, details, details. Be sure to first explicitly state what job you are applying to and for what company. If applying for funding, be sure to include the full name of the grant, scholarship, or fellowship and your project title. It is imperative your professor include this in their letter to demonstrate they work closely with you. I knew a professor who asked students to fill out an entire Google Form before requesting a letter of recommendation, so they knew exactly who to address, what character traits to illuminate, and what areas of expertise to emphasize.
For job applications, I suggest attaching your resume and the application you are applying to. For funding, it is standard to include the grant application as well as your typed proposal. In your initial email, asking your professor to write the letter, highlight with bullet points what you hope they focus on from the job or grant application.
For example, SGRCA requires all students to discuss their project’s methodology and theoretical framework. Put how you hope your professor can address those two aspects in your letter as it pertains to your proposal. Employers and grant committees alike expect to see you have chosen a professor who knows your work and validates what you have expressed in your own resume and writing.
A strategy I have often found useful when you need multiple faculty letters of recommendation is to have each professor focus on a slightly different aspect of your work so their combined input paints a full picture of who you are as a student and researcher.
Lastly, be sure to tell them when you need their letter by and who to send it to. Will they be mailing it directly to the company or can they simply attach a signed copy in an email to you personally? This part is important. Give your professor a due date.
What NOT to do: Typically, the more specific information you can provide your professor, the better. Unless your relationship is developed enough and the faculty member writing your letter has stated they are open to one-on-one editing, it is not advisable to return their letter with edits if you are able to even see the final draft before it is sent.
Avoid dictating exact phrases and sentences you want your professor to use in their writing. You should have already selected a professor you have faith in to paint an accurate picture of you in the letter. They know how to write, especially in the English program.
Certainly, you may not change anything a professor writes in their recommendation. That is unethical and potentially illegal.