Angela Nostwick is a senior in English and Creative Writing
at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In addition
to writing, Angela acts and assistant directs with The What
You Will Shakespeare Company and is the Poetry and Drama
Editor for Montage Arts Journal.
It’s an intimidating conversation, but one every undergrad must eventually face: asking for a letter of rec. Whether it’s for grad school applications, an internship, a scholarship, a job, study abroad, or, in my case, a writing competition – at some point in your college career you’ll need one. Here are my tips for how to secure the dreaded letter of rec.
Know who to ask
A letter of rec should come from someone who can attest to your work ethic and skills. Depending on what you need the letter for, it doesn’t necessarily have to come from a professor. It could be a manager at a job or some other professional/academic mentor. If it does need to be a professor, ask one whom you feel you left a positive impression upon. A letter of rec from a professor who teaches in your major and whose class you actually put effort into will probably portray you in a better light than one from the professor who taught the 8AM gen-ed that you slept through freshman year. You will probably leave a more lasting impression in classes that are discussion based and smaller than in larger sized lectures. If your school or major only has large class sizes, regular attendance to office hours will help foster a connection in the professor’s mind between your name, your face, and your work. It also illustrates a commitment to your education. Even if you have small classes and work personally with your professor on a regular basis, office hour attendance never hurts.
Ask sooner rather than later
Around late November/early December, professors get swamped with requests for letters of rec. The sooner you ask, the more likely they’ll say yes. Asking earlier also shows that you are organized and plan ahead, and it gives them more time to write (you don’t want a letter that sounds rushed).
Don’t be discouraged
This isn’t prom; if they say no, it doesn’t mean they dislike you. Professors have lives too. The first professor I asked was having a really busy semester and had to turn me down. Make sure you have a few backups just in case this happens to you.
Ask via email
Most advise that you should ask in person, during office hours, because professors will be less likely to say no if the conversation is face-to-face. I argue that email is preferable for a few reasons: first off, it’s less intimidating, and it allows you to present an organized, edited request. You can also attach your resume or other related documents (for me, it was a writing sample) that your professor can review while writing your letter. It may also be helpful to detail how the letter needs to be submitted (by mail, email, online, etc.). Finally, email allows the professor the comfort of time and distance to reply. Honestly, they may not remember you right away. This lets them review their records and recall who you are and the work you did.
If they agree, but don’t get back to you, don’t be afraid to send a polite reminder asking about the status of your letter. Be careful not to badger, but be persistent. If the professor repeatedly delays your letter, it may be a good idea to ask someone else as a backup.
Send a thank you note
The formal thank you note is a lost art. It’s a small amount of effort to place one in a professor’s university mailbox, but it speaks volumes to your character and gratitude. Showing your appreciation is not only the respectful thing to do, it may also benefit you in the future if you ever need their help again.