How to Request for Letter of Recommendation
One of the greatest areas of confusion and miscommunication among
students applying to graduate school involves letters of recommendation.
Students are often hesitant to approach faculty to ask for letters.
Writing letters of recommendation is part of a faculty member's job and
he or she expects to write letters for the good students in his or her
classes. Do not ever hesitate to ask for a letter or recommendation
because you feel you will be imposing. In the process of deciding whom
to ask and how to ask, students often procrastinate--making it more
difficult to find willing faculty members to write letters on short
notice. What follows are suggestions (based on faculty comments) which
may prove helpful to students in the process of seeking letters of
Whom should you ask for a letter of recommendation?
Normally graduate schools are interested in receiving letters
describing a student's academic ability. Thus, you should ask faculty
members who can comment on your performance in an academic setting.
Generally you would want to ask faculty in classes where you have made
the best grades. Even if other faculty know you well, an instructor of a
course where you earned a C might not be able to write a very strong
letter. If possible, you should strive for letters that stress different
areas of strength, e.g., one letter that emphasizes computer skills,
another your research skills. That way letters won't be duplicates of
each other. Asking the faculty advisor or someone who has known you only
in an informal setting, such as a fieldwork class or student
organization, may bring a refusal because most faculty know that you
need letters from professors in your key courses. If you wish to have an
employer (from a psychologically relevant job) or a fieldwork supervisor
write a letter for you, consider using him or her as an extra reference.
The minimum number of letters requested by a school should come, if at
all possible, from your academic instructors. Never have a relative,
family friend, or minister write a letter for you unless specifically
instructed to do so by a school to which you are applying.
How do I get to know faculty?
At a large school like CSULB and in a large department like
psychology, it is often hard to get to know faculty. It is up to the
student to make a special effort. Taking more than one class from the
same professor is a good idea. Participating in class discussion is
helpful, but make sure the professor knows your name. To accomplish this
you might talk to the professor before or after class or stop by the
office hours. However, be sensitive to cues from the professor; don't
interrupt the professor just as he or she is about to begin lecture or
engage in a lengthy conversation after class if other students are also
waiting. The ideal way to get to know faculty is to volunteer to work on
research or special projects. Do not wait until your senior year to
think about graduate school. If possible begin your planning in your
sophomore or junior year.
How do you approach a faculty member to ask for a letter of
Hopefully you will have had a chance to know at least one or two
faculty members well enough (work on the faculty research project,
involvement in several small classes, etc.) that asking for a letter is
a comfortable process. However, that is not the case for all students.
Some may find that faculty members who they know best are part-time
faculty who are not around when they need letters or the full-time
faculty they know are on sabbatical or have retired. Thus, they will be
in the awkward position of having to ask a faculty member who they do
not know well to write a letter. Approach the faculty member by
explaining your situation and inquiring whether he or she knows you well
enough to write a helpful letter. Listen carefully to the response. If
the faculty member seems reluctant, you might want to consider asking
someone else. Always ask the faculty member in person. Do not leave a
pack of letters in the faculty member's mailbox and expect him or her to
willingly write the letters. If you cannot appear personally, at least
phone to find out if the faculty member is willing.
Should I waive my right to see the letters?
The Buckley Amendment grants students rights to have access to their
educational records including letters of recommendation. However,
recommendation forms ask students if they wish to waive their right to
see the letters of recommendation. Most authorities advise students to
waive their rights because the recipients will then know that the
information in the letters is more candid. Information contained in
letters where the student does not waive the right of access may be
discounted by the schools who receive it. Also many students do not
realize that they only have the right to see their records if they are
accepted by a school and enroll.
When should I ask faculty to write my letters?
Give faculty members enough time to write the letters. Many students
delay in completing their application forms and postpone the process
until a vacation period. As many letters are due near the beginning of
the year, students often complete their applications over the Christmas
holidays. As they begin to organize their applications they approach
faculty near the end of the Fall semester. Do not assume that faculty
members will enjoy spending their Christmas vacation writing your
letters. Instead approach faculty at least
six weeks before your first letter is due, so that they
may write the letters at their convenience. Some faculty members would
appreciate it if you would leave a reminder message on voice mail
several days before the deadline. Ask the faculty member if he or she
would like you to do that. Also, you will want to approach faculty early
enough that, if they are not able to write a good letter for you, you
can still ask other faculty members.
What can I do to make the process of writing the letters easier
Make the process of writing the letters as easy as you can. Faculty
members may see up to 300 students a semester. Hence they may not
remember the details of your experiences in their classes as well as you
do. Provide a resume describing which classes you took from the faculty
member in question, your grades, the topics of any papers you wrote, and
any other noteworthy events related to the class in which you
participated. Even if you received an outstanding grade in the class,
the faculty member may know little else about you other than the small
sample of behavior observed during the class.
To provide the most informative, well-rounded letter, many faculty
would like additional information about you. You may want to provide a
resume which includes:
a) your overall GPA and Psychology GPA
b) your GRE scores (if available)
c) a list of psychology (and other relevant) classes you have taken
including your grades in each
d) a statement of your goals. If you have different programmatic goals
for different schools to which you are applying, be sure to inform the
faculty member of that fact.
e) your work and volunteer experience (if any)
f) your accomplishments in research (if any)
g) your participation in psychology-related extracurricular activities
or other noteworthy activities, i.e. student government (if any)
h) a list of any honors you have received or expect to receive
i) an explanation about any area in which you consider yourself weak, or
any other information you consider helpful
You should arrange this information in a systematic way. Provide a
cover page that includes a table indicating the school to which you are
applying, the name of the program, and the due date for receipt of the
letter. You might also add a column to the table for any special notes
you have about individual programs.
You may want to approach the faculty member shortly before the
deadline to see if the professor needs any additional information. (This
will also serve to jog the memory in case the professor has set the
Is there anything else I should do to make letter writing easy for
the professor? Writing letters of recommendation is a time consuming
process. Just filling in the information on the recommendation forms
(name, title, school, address, phone, date, etc. --all but faculty
signature) may take up to several hours if a student is applying to a
large number of schools. A student who fills in the blanks for the
faculty member may find his or her thoughtfulness results in a better
letter from a faculty member who appreciates the student's
organizational ability. When requesting the letters, you might ask each
faculty member how he prefers to be listed on the recommendation forms.
Do not expect the faculty member to spend his/her own money or the
department's money to provide envelopes and stamps. In the packet you
give to the faculty members writing your letters, include envelopes that
are addressed and include the return address of the faculty member. Make
sure that you put enough postage on the envelopes. Type whenever
1) Most faculty prefer to send the letters directly to the school. Do
not ask the letter writer to return the letters to you unless the
institution specifically requests that procedure.
2) Since the letter writers invest a lot of time and energy in
writing the letters and hope that you will be successful, they would
like to know the outcome. As a courtesy, please inform those who wrote
letters for you whether you were admitted to graduate programs and which
ones. The undergraduate and graduate advising offices would also like to
know about successful applicants.
More: Sample Letter of Request for