How to Get a Great Recommendation Letter
March 12, 2012
By Alexandra Haber
We’ve all been through it – for college, for grad school or med school, for grants, fellowships, programs, internships, and jobs – and it doesn’t seem to get any easier as time goes on. Securing a good letter of recommendation is not a very straightforward task, and it can be pretty daunting, especially as the stakes get higher, the applications more competitive, and the professors more high-profile. But it’s a skill that can make or break our chances of success in the world after college, because good grades alone do not tell recruiters or admissions officers what kind of person, student, or worker you are. The letter of recommendation is often the most important part of an application, especially when your competition is just as well-educated and well-rounded as you are – at least on paper.
But if you know all the secrets to maximizing your chances of getting a stellar recommendation letter, your other desirable personal traits will be brought to light, enabling you to make a good impression on the admissions staff and to be at least one step ahead of your competition.
So for your edification, here is a compilation of insightful tips and advice gathered from a range of knowledgeable people in all steps of the med and grad school application process. It covers all the major steps: who, when, how, and what to ask.
Whom to ask:
While you may think that having a letter from a big-name professor (especially when you have the privilege of coming from a place like Harvard or MIT) will work in your favor, the consensus among vets of the process is just the opposite. It is much better to ask a TF who knows you and your work well than to snag that coveted letter from a famous professor with whom you spoke once or twice at office hours. He or she may know your name but is probably unaware of any of the details that make you a stand-out candidate for the limited spots at your school of choice. Two more things to look for in a recommender are a real affinity for you as a person and at least decent writing ability. Not surprisingly, the quality of the writing and its ability to convince are correlated.
Laure “Voop” de Vulpillieres, a Kirkland House tutor at Harvard who does leadership training for non-profits, explains that there is a science to forging a productive relationship with someone like a TF or professor. As a recommender herself, she has been on the other side of the process many times (and has been a TF for several interpersonal strategy classes at the Kennedy School). It’s a “two-way street,” she says, citing the “gift-giving principle” as a helpful paradigm for getting good recommendation letters. People want to help you if they feel they have received something from you, as well as if they like you and feel you have something in common. As long as you are sincere and passionate, the best thing to do is decide in advance who you want to have a real connection with, and cultivate that relationship by inviting the person to faculty dinners and talking with them about non-academic things. The more they feel like they’ve gotten from you, the more eager they will be to write for you, and the more positive and genuine their letter will be.
When to ask:
The timing is one of the most stressful parts of requesting recommendations. We all know how impossibly fast deadlines seem to approach, and this holds true for your recommenders as well. The polite and professional thing to do is to give them plenty of time to write your letter (if they agree to, that is); this translates to at least one month’s notice ahead of the application deadline. Two to three weeks is generally okay if you have a good relationship with the person and know they’re not unusually busy during those weeks; any less than that is too tight in most cases. Remember also that there is always a chance that the first person you ask cannot or does not want to write for you, in which case you will need to find someone else once you find that out. If you do not budget enough time for this possibility, you may find yourself desperately looking for a recommender two weeks before the deadline, which is certainly not a good place to be.
How to ask:
Exactly what you say when you contact a professor, TF, or PI for a letter of recommendation is immensely important not only for social reasons but also in order to guarantee you get the best letter you can get. It can be advantageous to ask very nicely in person first, because people generally appreciate face-to-face communication; however, if you think you can be more articulate in writing, email is fine also. How do you ask? First and foremost, give the person an out. Use the phrase “would you feel comfortable,” and don’t hesitate to ask the person if they think they would be able to write you a strong letter. “The only thing worse than no letter is a bad or lukewarm letter,” says Abby Schiff, a 2011 graduate of Harvard College who is living and working in New York while in the midst of applying to med school. “Say something like, ‘I know you're really busy, but if you feel that you could write me a strong letter, I would feel honored to have you write a letter for [whatever you are applying to].’” Professors are used to being asked for recommendations, and they usually know how to say no if they think they are not the best option for you. If this happens, or if they hesitate in any way, just make an excuse and find someone else. You want to be sure that the person has confidence in their opinion of you, because whether they do or do not, it will most likely come through in their writing.
What else to say:
After you have framed the actual request, make sure to offer all the help that you can. Especially if your recommender is unfamiliar with the institution(s) to which you are applying, it is helpful if you tell them exactly what you want them to do (politely, of course). Give the person comprehensive information about the school/program to which you are applying, provide any guidelines specified on the application, and offer to send them anything that you have written for it. If you don’t have anything written, offer to meet with them in person to discuss your interest in the school/program and your relevant experience. If you do meet, feel free to share what you think are your strong points: sometimes recommenders can use a bit of help figuring out what direction to take in their letter, even if they know you well. Then, once the person has agreed to write for you, send along your resume for good measure and provide an addressed and stamped envelope for their convenience. And don’t forget to always send a thank-you note! Small gestures go a surprisingly long way in today’s fast-paced world.
For med school:
All of the above information applies to all recommendation letters, no matter what you’re applying to. But we have some med-school-specific tips as well. “Aim for a balance of people who have seen you through the things you are passionate about,” says Schiff. She was lucky enough to get a letter from Paul Farmer, but she says that interviewers tend to mention the letter from her thesis advisor instead, because it’s clear that he knows her much better. She advises having “a strong science and non-science TF or faculty recommendation, but also people from the rest of your life.” These can include “people who have supervised your work or volunteer activities … especially in situations that are relevant to medicine, such as bosses at work, doctors you have shadowed, research mentors, or volunteer coordinators. Other great options are people like advisors, athletic coaches, faculty advisors for student groups, heads of cultural or religious organizations, or graduate students who might be involved in other extracurriculars.” When you ask for a letter, Schiff recommends telling the person why you want to go to med school and to specify particular parts of your undergraduate experience that you would like them to focus on.
For grad school:
As for grad school, Anna Chambers, a 2009 graduate of Johns Hopkins University and current neuroscience grad student at Harvard, has the lowdown: “In a grad science program, they want to know that you have done more than just show up in a lab, do what you're told, and get good grades. They want to know that you are self-motivated, creative, and get along well with others in a research setting. Along with a personal statement (and sometimes more effective than a personal statement), a rec letter can make you stand out among a crowd of equally talented people.” Chambers adds that you should shoot for a balance of academic and research references, pointing out that a good recommendation can explain anything questionable in the rest of your application or simply highlight the really important parts.
Other useful tips:
1. Remind your recommender of the deadline before it comes. Even if you feel rude checking in periodically, remember that these people are busy and almost always appreciate reminders, as long as they are very polite. I have even had a professor, upon agreeing to write for me, actually ask me to send him weekly reminder emails until the deadline. Remember, the old phrase “absent-minded professor” is not completely unfounded in reality!
2. If you are familiar with a professor but not close enough for him or her to write you a great letter, it is perfectly legitimate to ask your TF who knows and likes you to write the recommendation and then have the professor co-sign it. You will get a better and more personal letter that way, while still having the professor’s name on it.
3. Similarly, it is also fairly common practice to offer to write the letter yourself and have a TF or professor sign it. Ask them first, of course, but this can be a good method if your recommender is very busy or if you have to get a letter from them but are not as close with them as you would ideally like.
4. Take advantage of the resources at your school. Harvard’s Office of Career Services has handouts, workshops, and online FAQs and databases where you can get more information about the grad and med school application processes. They are there to help!
5. Check to see if your school has a recommendation file service. At Harvard, for example, I was surprised to find out that each undergraduate house office will collect any recommendation letters you get throughout your four years and keep them on file until you need them. To take advantage of this service, try to get to know at least one professor or TF really well each semester, and at the end of it, ask them for a recommendation. A freshly-written letter from freshman year is much better than one you obtain junior year from someone who really liked you two years before.
6. When you have the option, waive your right to see the letters. For whatever reason, people feel more comfortable writing about you when they are assured confidentiality, even if they are praising you.
7. Get started on the process as soon as you finish this article! You can get great recommendations any year of college, and a solid collection of letters will come in handy all too often as you near graduation.
A list of who NOT to get a recommendation from (courtesy of Abby Schiff, Scientista contributor who was just accepted into Harvard’s MD/PhD program):
-Current students, unless there really is nobody else who knows the work you've been doing. This can be tricky for people who spend a lot of time in a peer-run group, such as PBHA or the Crimson, but it's much less credible, and admissions offices might think you persuaded your friend to write it.
-A famous professor who has no idea who you are.
-Faculty from a huge course who has no idea who you are.
-Faculty who you took a class with several semesters ago and did not stay in touch with.
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About the Author
I am currently a sophomore at Harvard studying Neurobiology in the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track and considering a secondary field of Human Evolutionary Biology. If you can't tell, I think science is fascinating - but I also love writing!Outside of class, I play rugby, play flute, sing, and am involved in Hillel and house life (yeah Kirkland!).