Tips on Recommendation Letters for Students and Instructors

Suggestions on asking for and writing recommendation letters as part of graduate school applications

higher ed
for professors
for students

July 19, 2023


In this blog post I would like to demystify the recommendation letter process for students and instructors. If you are a college student who wants to gain some background information on how recommendation letters work and how to ask your professors to write you one, then this blog post might be helpful. If you are a newish instructor who does not know how to handle recommendation letter requests or how to write one, then this blog post might also be helpful to you. You can also feel free to share this with your students. I split the tips for students and instructors into two, but I assume students will read the instructors’ section and vice versa.

A little background on me: I teach statistics and data science courses at a research university. In any given year, I teach hundreds of students and receive a lot of requests to write letters of recommendation. I would love to support all my students, but I get more requests than I can possibly write given my other work commitments.

Every year, I have a personal cap of supporting around 20 students in their graduate school applications. On average my students apply to ten programs which means I am writing about 20 letters but submitting about 200 letters. If you have never submitted a letter to graduate school, you might think the process is easy, but it feels as if graduate schools try their best to make the process very difficult. First, different programs use different systems thus all look different with tens of different logins and passwords. But the worst of all, many programs ask letter writers to fill out a long form (in addition to the letter) with useless questions (e.g., fax number), questions of no educational value (e.g. ranking students), as well as irrelevant questions (e.g. if a student follows safety procedures in a lab) for which we have to spend time selecting NA forever. This might seem like a spoiled academic person’s complaint but a letter submission process which could be five minutes per student and per program becomes at least 15-30 minutes. You do the math of how much of my time is spent just submitting the letters in addition to writing them each year, usually around the same two weeks.

Every year, I also serve on our department’s M.S. Statistics admissions committee which means I get to read a lot of recommendation letters. This blog post is solely based on my personal experience, does not represent the views of my department or the institution and may possibly not be useful to those who don’t share similar experiences. For instance, it may possibly not be useful for those who are not necessarily linked to the US higher education system.

Tips for Students

Whom to Ask?

Your favorite professor may not necessarily be the best person to write a letter of recommendation. Students often ask a professor if they can write a letter of recommendation because the professor is the best professor they ever had, they are inspiring, caring, and understanding. Although this can be flattering to hear for a professor, it is not always the best idea to ask your favorite professor for a letter. First and foremost, MANY students feel comfortable emailing these more approachable professors. With the higher number of requests they get, these professors can possibly say “no” simply because they are overwhelmed. When a professor says “no” you must remind yourself that it has nothing to do with whether you deserve to be in grad school or not.

Students often think that they should only ask a professor if they received an A in their class. In the past, for many reasons, I had to say “no” to many students who had gotten A’s in my classes, including those who were not applying to grad schools in my area or in an area that I can speak about and students who received an “easy A” but did not show any other forms of success. On the other hand, I have also said “yes” to many students who did not necessarily receive an A in my class, but I could speak very well about their success story and thought they would be successful in graduate school. The grade is already part of the application as part of your transcript so I believe the recommendation letter should tell more than the letter grade.

Ask a professor who can speak to your potential success in the graduate program. For instance, if you are applying for a graduate degree in Statistics, asking a painting professor may not necessarily make sense if you believe the professor would most likely comment on what a great painter you are. What Statistics programs would want to know is whether you would be able to complete your graduate courses (mostly in Statistics) successfully, if you are applying for Ph.D. your research skills might be relevant if you had previous research experience, and how you can contribute to the department in other ways, in teaching, community building, etc. Many skills may contribute to your Statistics degree and if you have two Statistics/math professors writing you letters of recommendation then your third letter can come from your painting professor possibly with whom you might have done an outreach program in your community.

Ask a professor who may have gotten to know you a little bit on a personal level. This might especially be difficult if you are at a large university and are taking classes with 100+ other students. Your instructor who taught you an intro class cannot provide anything more than your grades and your homework assignments. However, if there was an opportunity for an instructor to get to know you more either during office hours or more advanced smaller classes, they would have more to say about your success story. One of the best letters I have ever read came from an adjunct professor who truly explained why a student almost failed their class one year and then excelled the following year. The letter really explained the student’s situation without giving away too much on their personal life much better than a transcript could explain.

Think before asking someone in industry. You might have done an internship and might possibly be wondering if you should ask a letter from someone at the company. In my experience, the least helpful letters I have read often came from those outside of academia. This is not to say everyone who works in the industry will write bad letters. There have also been some REALLY helpful ones. Some red flags I have witnessed is asking someone where there is a personal relationship (e.g., someone at your parents’ company) in which case it might be difficult to distinguish the professional and personal relationship, someone who doesn’t understand the concept of graduate programs, someone at such a high rank that has not worked closely with you. Especially in the last case, you might feel asking someone at a high rank will be prestigious but often they would not know you and they would talk more about themselves and their company than your contributions to the company will not even be in the letter. It is one thing to stay that a team in company X uses a cutting-edge statistical model and another thing to stay the specific ways you have learned from and contributed to that team. Ask someone in industry if they can speak to your potential success in the graduate program. Yes, the same rule applies here too!

When to Ask?

Your graduate school programs will have varying deadlines but the best time to ask someone would be towards late summer, early fall. This would give them enough time to plan ahead considering the usual graduate school deadlines in the November - early January time frame. If you are considering applying to one of the programs that have deadlines after January, do not wait until the mid-Fall term to ask your professors. By that time, they would have already committed to writing letters for other students and may not commit to more. Some students also ask the professor right after finishing a course. I personally would not commit to writing a letter two years in advance for instance but having a detailed email that I can refer to always helps.

How to Ask?

I took some time between my undergraduate degree and Ph.D. When it was my time to ask my undergraduate professors for a letter of recommendation, I had attached my photo to the email stating that perhaps they may not remember my name, but they may possibly remember my face. Everyone I had emailed said they remembered me from my face (from office hours, hanging out in the math department etc.). This is not to say that you should attach a photo of yourself to your email, but it would be extremely helpful if you can first and foremost try to remind yourself to the professor, especially if it has been a while since your last encounter. This can include any funny encounter, unusual memory, or anything memorable when you took their class or worked with them. This memory should remind the professor of you not the other way around, clearly you do remember the professor!

In addition to reminding the professor of who you are, it would be helpful to provide them some information of your future goals and of your past successes. Some professors (e.g. Prof. Jo Hardin) publicly tell their students what she needs from her students. I, on the other hand, ask my students to fill out a form which I further explain below in the tips for instructors (please read!). I really believe that providing information on logistics of your grad school applications and your personal story helps the instructor to decide whether they can support you with a letter. If they can write a letter, then the information you provide helps strengthen the letter.

Tips for Instructors

You need a system, any system that works for you, especially if you teach large classes. Whether it is via email, online form, or message sent with pigeons you need a system of your own that works for you to effectively manage letter requests and write them. I share my system below which you can feel free to modify for your own use.

An example system

I ask my students to submit a Google Form which I use both for letter of recommendation requests as well as reference requests for graduate school and job applications. The questions on the form are as follows:

I would like to support all my students in their future endeavors. Considering the large classes I teach, unfortunately it is not possible for me to write a letter of recommendation for all of my students applying to graduate school and/or jobs. Thus, if you do not hear from me within two business days of submission of this form, you can assume that I will NOT be able to provide a letter of recommendation/reference at this time.

This question has only one choice stated as I have read and understood the statement. I find it extremely difficult to say no to students, and people in general. This question is my solution to making students aware of my work conditions without discouraging them in the application process.

Your name as you would like it to appear in the letter.

Your pronoun(s) that you would like me to use when referring to you in the letter.

These two questions help correct any errors I might have on my end in student records. The name part can be a little tricky but if a student has a legal name and their (chosen) name differing I would use the legal name to begin the letter as we are often asked to confirm that the letter is written for the student who is really who they claim to be but I always can use their chosen name in the rest.

What is this request for?

The choices are:

  • Recommendation letter
  • Reference (e.g. no letter, just using your name on my resume)

If you need a recommendation letter or anything else that would require for me to prepare in advance, when is the first deadline you would need the letter/other product by?

I use the answer to this question to add it to my task manager with the due date if I agree to write the letter.

What kind of programs or jobs you are applying to?

Which courses did you take from me? When? Or if you were involved in any of projects please note them as well. List everything.

Any success stories you remember from my course that you would like me to remember/know about? Or any success story related to my course content that may have happened after my course? This is YOUR success story. In other words, what made you special among other students? Please do NOT be modest. Every student is special.

Please upload your CV, (unofficial) transcript, personal statement, and anything else that may be relevant for your application. These can be in draft format.

These four questions help me remind myself about the student and get to know them a little bit more. In addition, I get an understanding of their future goals. If I agree to write a letter, I tailor my letter to match the evidence that can support their future goals.

Additional Tips on Personal Experiences

  • If you can, submit the letter before the deadline. First, students rightfully get anxious close to the deadline. Second, all sorts of things can happen. One of my worst experiences happened when I mixed up two students’ letters. Yes, a potential reason for a heart attack! The students had almost the exact same name (with one letter difference) but they had applied one year apart. Somehow, I sent one program a former student’s letter who had taken a completely different class with me. Thankfully, I had enough time to contact the program in time to get the letter changed.

  • People have different views on this but I personally would not submit a letter that is not supportive. In other words, if I think the student should not be in graduate school, I would not agree to write a letter of recommendation for them. Your letters are of course written with your own rules!

  • Personalized letters are always the best. They include information that may not necessarily appear in other students’ letters. It helps admissions committee members to know the student beyond the numeric metrics such as GPA and test scores. These letters can help the committee members see how the student would be successful in the graduate program, success broadly defined.

  • Speak about what is important in graduate school. There are many parts to success in graduate school, including academic preparation, motivation, time management, a sense of belonging, etc… For instance, Linear Algebra is an important part of academic preparation for Statistics programs. If you know, for instance, a student who had a low grade in their linear algebra class but was successful using their linear algebra skills in your course, you should mention that. Their linear algebra grade can possibly be due to a strict grader and possibly not totally reflective of their knowledge and skills.

  • It is not always possible for professors to hit the golden standard of personalized letters for many reasons. Thus, there are generic letters out there. These letters include how the professor knows the student, what course(s) the student took, what the course included, and the student’s standing in the course. Even though generic letters help students to meet the “three letter criteria”, they are not always the most helpful. If you cannot provide information more than the generic ones, you may want to communicate this to the student to advise them to seek letters from professors who can also speak to details of their strengths. Students at large universities would have a harder time finding letter writers, thus they may still need your generic letter, however, it would be best if they are informed about it gently.

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