How To: Request a Letter of Recommendation
At various milestones in your professional training/career, you'll need letters of recommendation. But at least for those of us in grad school or undergrad, there is often little guidance as to how you should request these letters. Many supervisors generally expect to write letters, but there are things you (as a student) can do to help make the process easier for them. And while doing so, you can also help to make sure their letters are strong and represent you at your best. Here's how.
Before we get into the details, I first want to address who you should ask to write you a letter of rec. At least for undergrad students, it's not always clear (whereas in grad school most of us have specific supervisors). Depending on what you're applying for (e.g., job, grad school, internship), the who can be a very important question.
In general, it's best to avoid asking family or friends. Some of you may think this is obvious, but many are tempted to request one from a family member or longtime friend when others are not immediately obvious. While these people may be able to speak about you well, readers will give little weight to what is said. Friends and family are seen as less likely to give honest critique, or to know your professional strengths/weaknesses.
The next group many students consider asking is professors. If you're an undergrad student applying for grad school, this can sometimes work. But overall, professors do not get a good sense of your true professional capabilities. On their side, they primarily have experience with how well you did getting assignments in on time and done well. And your grade is reflected in your transcript anyway, so there isn't much of a unique contribution. If you don't have any other academic supervisors (e.g., faculty you do research with), then this can be a back-up. But it shouldn't be a first choice option. If you do decide to get a letter from a professor, try to ask one you interacted with outside of just turning in assignments (e.g., going to office hours).
But the ideal group is an academic supervisor of some kind. If you've had other supervisors (e.g., clinical supervisors for grad students), those are great too. Supervisors are in a unique position of having seen your professional abilities. In addition, you're most likely applying for something that will involve working with a supervisor, and that supervisor is the one who will read the letters. Your current supervisors will have the best sense of how to format a letter for other supervisors to read.
While a lot of people have the impression that letters of rec are pretty benign/templated, they have a lot of subtle communication to them. The more familiar someone is with what the people reading your letters will be looking for, the stronger the letter they can write.
It's pretty standard to need three letters of rec, whether you're applying for grad school, internship, or something else. But it can be helpful to request a few more. Depending on the specific thing you're applying to (e.g., the grad school program), you can then use the letters from supervisors who are able to speak to your abilities that are most relevant for that specific position. For example, you can use letters from research supervisors for a more research-focused internship, or more from clinical supervisors for a more clinical-focused internship.
It's also important to consider how the letters will be handled. You most likely won't see the letter yourself, and instead the writers will either upload their letters or will send them directly. Just know how things will be structured for whatever you're applying for so you can plan accordingly.
That means it can actually be somewhat time consuming. Pair that with the busy schedules of supervisors, and you'll want to make sure the writer has plenty of time to get the letter written.
That means you'll likely want to give your letter writers 2-4 weeks to write the letter. But keep in mind that there may be a few things that need to happen prior to a writer starting work on a letter, so you'll want to give yourself even more time if possible. At around 6 weeks before the letter is due you'll likely want to reach out to potential writers. That gives time for them to let you know if they'll be unable to write a letter for you, and you can get them any information they might need (e.g., a copy of your CV, a summary of your contributions to the lab to help make sure they cover everything).
This may seem like it should be the easiest part, but you really want to be considerate in how you request letters. As I just mentioned above, you'll want to give yourself and your writers plenty of time. In addition, the more comprehensive you can be on your side, the easier you'll make it for the writers.
In the end, the writers themselves will ultimately decide what to include in a letter. However, you can request for them to focus on certain aspects of the work you did. Take advantage of this and give some suggestions to each writer for which of your skills you'd like to make sure they address. Before contacting a writer, think about what things about yourself they may be most uniquely able to discuss, so you can request that those things be included in the letter. Doing so helps to prevent overlap between letters, and will give the readers a more comprehensive view of you. In addition, it helps the writers know where to start, making the process easier for them.
It can also be helpful to send the writers some info, such as your CV, from the beginning. This reduces the need for them to request materials, which saves time in the long-run.
And finally, expect that some writers may ask you to draft a letter for them. They won't use your draft, of course, but it's helpful for them to use as guidance (e.g., to see which skills you focus on, how you want them discussed). Don't assume they'll want this and put in the time to draft one for every writer. Wait to see if they ask for one, and just know that it might be something that is requested. If it is, just see it as an opportunity for self-reflection and to show them what things they are uniquely able to discuss.
And that's really all that's needed. It's not a lot, but by being comprehensive and planning ahead you will make the process much easier for the writers. When things are easier for them, and they have plenty of time, they'll be able to write you a much better letter, and that can make a big difference in your application.
Have questions about requesting a letter or rec? Or have you written letters of rec and want to give some additional advice? Let us know in the comments!