I’m in the process of applying for residency right now and a huge part of the application process is recommendation letters.
My least favorite part.
Out of all the parts of the application, this is the one that I got most hung up about.
“Do I know them well enough to ask for a rec letter?”
“Darn it, I should have gotten to know them better when I was rotating with them so this wouldn’t be so awkward.”
“Are they going to give me a good letter or are they going to write me a pity letter because they know I need it?”
Yup, all of those have gone through my mind.
No matter what field you’re in, sooner or later you’re going to have to ask for a recommendation letter. Whether it’s for a scholarship, for graduate school, for residency, or for a job, it’s going to happen. Here are a few tips and two templates at the end for asking for recommendation letters.
Tip #1: Don’t overthink it
While it’s awkward on your end, realize that professors and employers get asked for recommendation letters all the time. You’re not doing something out of the ordinary by asking for the rec letter.
Tip #2: Ask early
Absolutely do not wait until the last minute to ask for rec letters. You should ask a month or two in advance so that the person has time to write your letter without feeling burdened.
Tip #3: Get your materials together before asking for a rec letter
Most people will ask for a copy of your CV and a personal statement/application to whatever you’re applying for. Have that ready at the time you ask for the rec letter so that when they request it, you can respond promptly with the documents.
Tip #4: Waive your right to read your letter
If this shows up anywhere, check it. Do not, do not, do not assert this right. If you do, your recommendation letter is de facto discarded and the rest of your application is looked at with suspicion.
Tip #5: Send a thank you note
A week or two after you know the letter of recommendation has been sent out, follow up with a thank you note. A simple card saying thank you will suffice. If you want to be really nice, a small box of chocolates would go well with it.
Now, for the templates. These are obviously if you’re asking for rec letters via email. Some people consider it better to ask for letters in person but personally, I feel emails are just as good if not better. You have ample time to revise your email before hitting send. In person, you have to get it right on the first go. 20 years ago, email might have been too informal but nowadays, with so much business already conducted over email, I strongly feel it’s a non-issue.
So Template #1 is for the average student. This is for classes in which you did well but really didn’t interact with the professor. You went to class, did your work, got your grade, and moved on. Honestly, this describes the vast majority of my classes in college.
My name is Abdul Rahman Abdullah and I was enrolled in your Organic Chemistry course last fall. It was definitely one of the more challenging classes I took in college yet I enjoyed it quite a bit and was very happy to have earned an A.
I’m currently in the midst of applying to med school and am gathering letters of recommendation. I was wondering if you would be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation for medical school?
I would be glad to meet with you at your earliest convenience if you think that would be useful. Of course, I can also provide my personal statement, CV, and any other material that you would like.
I realize that writing a recommendation letter would be a burden on your time and it means a lot to me that you would take the time to read and consider my request.
Now, Template #2 is for classes where you actually did go above and beyond. I don’t mean you just got a high grade, but where the professor knew you personally. If the class was a large lecture, you would have had to regularly meet with the professor during office hours to let him get to know you on an individual basis. If the class was small, you probably automatically fall into this category. Rule of thumb: if the professor would recognize you outside the classroom and greet you with your first name, this is the template to use.
Hi Professor Lupin,
This is Abdul Rahman, hope things are going well with you! It’s been a while since I took Organic Chemistry with you last fall and I’m finally in the process of applying to medical school. It seemed like so far away when I was in your class but now the application season is in full swing.
I’m gathering together all the parts of my application and am starting with recommendation letters. I really enjoyed your class and immediately thought of asking you for a letter. Would you be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation for medical school?
I would be more than happy to meet with you at your convenience to refresh your memory of me if you think that would be helpful. Of course, I can also provide my personal statement, CV, and any other material that you would like.
Thank you so much for taking the time to consider my request!
Of course, modify the template as needed to fit with your specific circumstance and the way you talk. Use it as a guide and then reword it to make it sound more like you.
Then go out and get that rec letter!