Requesting Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are an important part of many types of applications. They also require a great deal of time and effort from the people you ask to write on your behalf. Consequently, you should do you best to choose people who will write you the best letters possible, and you should help them to write the best letter they can for you.

Here are some issues you should consider when asking for a letter of recommendation:

What is the Purpose of a Letter of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are frequently required for application to programs such as the following: Letters of recommendation are far more than a formality or a "box to check" as you are applying. They are an incredibly important part of you application, and in many cases your letters of recommendation will make or break your application. I have heard many people who have served on application committees say that they view the letters of recommendation as the most important part of the application. This is especially true for competitive programs, where all the applicants have good grades and numerous achievements. It is the letters of recommendation that can set an application apart from the rest.

Letters of recommendation are intended to add something beyond what the program can find out from your grades, transcripts, or your own statements about yourself. When someone writes a letter of recommendation for you they are being asked to comment not only on your past performance and current skills, but also your promise for future accomplishments. This means they are being asked to evaluate you and describe broader aspects of you than what can be found in other parts of your application; for example, your professionalism, your talent, your grit and tenacity, and ---most importantly--- whether they believe you will be successful in the program to which you are applying and why. Because of this, you should keep in mind that your letter writer is putting their reputation on the line when they write for you. If they recommend you and you are not successful, it reflects poorly on them and their letters may be taken less seriously in the future.

Whom Should I Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

There are two qualities you want in a letter writer: (1) Someone who knows you well and has a positive opinion of you, and (2) Someone with a strong professional reputation.

First of all, it is best if you ask someone that knows you and your performance well. A good choice would be a professor who taught an upper-level course in which you performed very well, and in which you distinguished yourself enough that the professor took notice of you and your performance. Ideally, it will even be someone that you have worked extensively with in small groups or one-on-one (such as a professor you worked with on a research project, or one who served as you academic mentor). The better the person knows you, the better your letter will be. If you ask a professor who taught a large lecture class in which you did not stand out, or someone who doesn't even know your name, their letter will be very impersonal and they will not have much to say. Impersonal letters like this do not help you ---- in fact, they hurt your application because they indicate you do not have any professional superiors that know you well and are willing to comment on your performance. (So, if you have to start your request for a letter of recommendation by reminding the professor who you are, or if you're asking a professor who taught a course in which your final grade was below a B, you probably shouldn't even bother asking.)

Second, you want your letter writer to be someone with a strong professional reputation. In general, it is best to have a letter from a professor (i.e., someone with the rank of Full Professor, Associate Professor, or Assistant Professor) who is tenured or tenure-track, rather than a Lecturer or Instructor. You can find out the individual's rank by looking at the math department website or by looking on that person's individual website. (In general, anyone with the title of Lecturer or Instructor is not a tenured or tenure-track professor.) Likewise, you should not ask a graduate student for a letter of recommendation, even if they have taught a class or were the TA for a recitation you have taken.

A professor will always have a Ph.D. and their job entails not only teaching, but mathematics research and service to the mathematics community. They also have experience teaching graduate students and supervising Masters theses and Ph.D. theses. In general, professors will be well known outside the university and more established in the mathematics community, often with a national or international reputation. In addition, their comments about you and your potential carry more weight than an instructor. This is because professors (unlike lecturers or instructors) are viewed as individuals who have attained a high level of success in both research and teaching of mathematics, who can judge the potential for success in students, and who have a broader scope of mathematics and mathematics students beyond just their own university.

There are, of course, situations in which the people who know you best are not the people with the strongest reputations or the people with senior positions. In these cases, you have to make some decisions about what will make your application look best. For example, a very positive letter from an Assistant Professor will look better than a lukewarm letter from a Full Professor. However, a glowing letter from a Lecturer may not be as good as a positive, but less enthusiastic, letter from an Associate Professor. Also, consider the program you are applying to. If a program has a large teaching component, a letter from a Lecturer (particularly one of the senior lecturers in charge of multiple sections of a course) may be appropriate. On the other hand, if you're applying for a graduate program, you would definitely want your letter writers to all be professors, and to be individuals that have earned Ph.D.s and successfully gone through graduate programs themselves.

How Do I Ask For a Letter of Recommendation?

When you ask someone for a letter of recommendation there are two things that will greatly affect the quality of the response you get: (1) Your professionalism as you ask for the letter, and (2) The degree to which you help that person to write you an effective letter.

Ask politely when you are requesting a letter of recommendation and provide details on the program you are applying to. It is not enough to say "I am applying for jobs/graduate school/summer programs, will you write me a letter?". Give the person you are asking some specific information about what it is you are applying for, how it fits into your future goals, and what they would have to do if they accept. For example, you could say: "I am applying for the `Director's Summer Program' at the National Security Agency (NSA). This is a program for undergraduate math majors to work on projects related to national security. I'm interested in it because I want to see what opportunities there are for government jobs that use mathematics, and after I graduate I may consider applying for a job at the NSA. If you are willing to write a letter for me, you will need to fill out an online form answering questions about your assessment of my abilities, and upload a 2 to 5 page letter of recommendation. If I become a finalist in the application process, I will also need to pass to pass a background check, and the NSA will contact you and ask you to answer questions about me in a phone interview. Would you be willing to do this for me?".

Do not be offended if someone you ask for a letter of recommendation says "No". They may be doing you a favor --- if they feel they cannot write you a strong letter or they do not know you well enough, they may know their letter will be lackluster and not help your application. Some people may even suggest other individuals you could ask for a letter. Again, this may be an act of kindness and not simply passing the buck. They may honestly think someone else could write a stronger letter for you, or that another person's position and reputation will carry more weight with the program to which you are applying.

In general, make it as easy as possible for the professor to write you an effective letter. If you ask for a letter of recommendation, contact your potential letter writer at least 4 weeks prior to the deadline. Writing a good letter can be quite time consuming, and many faculty are very busy and not able to take time out of their schedule without some advanced notice. Once they have agreed, give your letter writer everything they need to write and submit your letter. Here is a list of all the things I request when writing a letter of recommendation. I think most other letter writers would find these things useful as well.

After the letter has been submitted, it is a nice gesture to send a thank you note to the person who wrote you a letter. After you receive a response from the program(s) that you applied to, it is also polite to let your letter writers know the outcome.

Some comments specific to graduate school applications: If your application requires a certain number of letters, you may be tempted to get an additional one or two. This is usually a bad idea: every additional letter after your best one lowers the average quality of your application. An additional letter beyond what is requested only makes sense if it will be glowing and adds a completely different perspective.

Finally, to reiterate what I said above: Remember that for graduate school applications, letters from senior faculty (i.e., full professors) usually carry more weight than those from junior faculty (i.e., associate or assistant professors). However, strongly positive letters matter more for your application than the letter writer's position, and you may be able to build closer relationships with junior faculty that are less inundated with students and other responsibilities. Keep this tradeoff in mind. Probably, a balance of junior and senior faculty recommenders is best for a graduate school application.

Back Arrow Back