Contacting Your Letter Writers

By Dr. Keisha John, Director of Diversity Programs, Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, University of Virginia; and Dr. Ja’Wanda Grant, Special Assistant to the Provost for Scholar Development and Institutional Alliances, Xavier University of Louisiana

Having effective letters of recommendation is crucial for successful applications. This article explains who to ask for letters of recommendation, as well as how to ask for them and follow up on your requests.

Who to ask : Your potential reference writers should know you in an academic or research capacity. If you are applying to a PhD program, your primary letter writers should be individuals that can speak about your research capabilities and those who have taught you in one or more class in which you received a B or better grade. If you are applying to a summer research or internship program, your primary letter writers should be instructors for courses in which you performed well, supervisors who know your work ethic and problem-solving abilities, and other professional references who can speak to your interest in research and how it connects with your long-term goals.

If you have not already done so, start developing professional relationships with potential letter writers. During summer research experiences off campus you should make every effort to meet with the faculty member whose name is on the laboratory equipment. Yes, you may work closely with a graduate student or postdoc. However, the letter should come from the faculty member. Therefore, schedule one-on-one time with the faculty mentor to discuss your progress and your summer, undergraduate and graduate goals. Ask if they have suggestions regarding classes, majors, and potential graduate programs. Look for other alignments, not only with the research but your personal and academic journeys, hobbies or interests. Do stay in touch once you have completed the summer. Three recommended messages are: 1) a thank you and update once your next semester starts, 2) a holiday greeting, and 3) a spring semester update.

For references on your campus, we highly recommend that you visit professors during their office hours and talk about anything other than passing the next exam or that particular class. Instead, you can discuss your progress towards career goals and ask them about their trajectory. Given that you are on the same campus you have more opportunities to develop and sustain your professional relationship. Make use of every opportunity for them to get to know you in and out of the classroom.

How and when to ask: Time and context are very important. Schedule a virtual or in-person meeting to request the letter. You should reach out at least three months before the due date of the letter. For seniors, this may mean speaking with them in the spring of your junior year or during the summer. Ask your letter writers if they can provide a STRONG LETTER of recommendation. Please do ask this question. Also, you should come to the meeting prepared with a draft of your resume as well as your statement of purpose. Share with the letter writer why you are asking for the letter and how you believe they can advocate for you. Provide examples that may be used for the letter. For example, you can ask that your letter writer discuss the creativity and initiative you displayed when you read papers and developed a solution for a difficult experiment. Perhaps your research design is still being used by the lab which speaks to your ability to create new research methods. You can discuss passions you have pursued while maintaining a strong academic and research record. Therefore, share your formal and informal leadership roles outside the laboratory or classroom. In addition, if you have anything in your record that you believe may be viewed as a blemish or red flag, please discuss this with them. Your letter writers may be able to convey better why your first semester grades or less than expected exam scores are not true reflectors of your accomplishments and future potential.

Once you have had this meeting and you are confident that they will provide a strong letter, follow up with an email within 24 hours of the meeting. In the email include the list of applications with their deadlines, your resume, statement of purpose and a bulleted list of potential topics to include in their letter. See an example of this bulleted list below. Also, let them know that you will add their information to the application as soon as it is open. Once the applications are open (typically in July or August for PhD programs) provide the recommender’s information as most of the systems send an initial email as well as reminders. If the application requires letter submissions via postal mail, provide the letter writer with pre-addressed, postmarked envelopes, as appropriate.

Reminders are necessary: Many online applications have trackers for application completion. You should use these to check on the status of your letters. We recommend that you send a reminder if your letter is not submitted two weeks before the due date. This message can be a simple email asking if they need any additional information to complete their letter. You can also send it as an update informing them that you have submitted your required application components and that you are grateful to have them serve as a letter writer. The next, and hopefully final, reminder should come two days before the due date. At this point, you need to be a bit more direct, as outlined in the following example.

Dear Professor X,

I do hope all is well. I am emailing to remind you that the recommendation letter you agreed to submit for my application to XYZ is due in two days. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to ensure the timely submission of your letter. Thank you for your continued support. Sincerely, Student.

Please remember to thank them once they have submitted each letter. Handwritten thank you notes are highly suggested when possible.

In summary, only ask those who know you in an academic or research capacity if you want a strong letter. Give them all of the resources they need to advocate for you and provide adequate time for them to compose a strong letter. Send gentle reminders within the two-week window for submission if they have not completed their letter. Thank them after they have submitted your letter of recommendation.

Action Items:

  1. Identify potential writers who can write strong letters.
  2. Ask them at least three months in advance of the application deadline.
  3. Send timely reminders if your writers are slow to upload your letters.

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