How to Secure Strong Letters of Recommendation
Asking for letters of recommendation (LORs) is the tip of the iceberg—underneath it is all the relationship-building you did with your letter-writer ahead of time.
That said, many of us don’t think about LORs until it’s time to actually ask people to write them, at which point we may wish we had done more to strengthen the relationship.
This newsletter’s goals are twofold:
Guide you through asking for a LOR if you need one soon.
Reduce stress about building strong relationships with potential future recommenders.
Keep scrolling for examples and templates!
Asking for a letter
First, create a list of a few people who might be suited to write the letter. To narrow it down, go person by person and ask yourself these questions:
1. How well do they know you? How long have you worked with them?
2. What do you think they would say about:
Your personal/professional/academic strengths/skills
Your personal/professional/academic weaknesses
3. Do they think highly of you?
4. Have you talked about your professional goals with them?
5. How long has it been since you’ve had a meaningful interaction (i.e., are
you fresh in their mind?)?
6. Have they seen you perform a variety of tasks or excel in multiple
7. If you’ve had them as a professor:
Did they see you significantly outside of class, like in their lab?
Did you participate often?
Did your presence in the class contribute to a positive class culture?
Did they ever comment personally on your performance?
Did you do well in their class?
Would they compare you favorably with other people in your class? - note about this: you don’t have to have been the top performing student for them to write you a great LOR!
Once you’ve reflected on these questions, and you feel confident enough that the person will write you a strong letter, have application materials prepared to send to them. Make sure there’s still enough time between now and the deadline for them to write the letter. A general guideline is to ask at least 1 month before, but ideally even sooner.
Now it’s time to ask!
These are emails to letter writers I’ve sent, which you can use as a guide. You’ll notice they’re all slightly different depending on my relationship with the person (which is why asking yourself those initial questions will be helpful!)
Cultivating relationships ahead of time
Many of you probably aren’t asking for letters of recommendations right now, but my guess is that most of you will need to at some point. Here are some of my tips for cultivating relationships with people who can potentially write you strong letters down the line.
Also note that you do not have to cultivate relationships with people who you don’t like or who don’t like you. Focus on the people with whom you have potential :)
Go to office hours
If there’s one thing I regret most about my time in college, it’s that I didn’t start going to office hours until my senior year. I wish I could shake my freshman self by the shoulders and convince her that going to office hours was as much worth my time as writing that essay or studying for my exams.
Ask to meet outside of class if you’d like more 1:1 time
This is perfectly acceptable—just give them a reason: you are inspired by their research, you’re particularly excited by the class material and would like their advice for getting more hands-on work, you want to learn about their career path because you’re considering a similar one, etc. Just be honest and be yourself.
Previous professors (whether you’re still a student or you’ve graduated):
You can still go to their office hours
You might just need to email them and ask when they are this semester.
Email them and ask to catch up
Over coffee, lunch, in their office, over zoom, or get creative!
Email them just to say thank you
If their class or teaching made an impact on you, tell them. For example, you might be applying for new roles or considering career paths, and their class was helpful in shaping your passions. Tell them that!
Check in every once in a while to update them and ask how they are
You can tell them about any new developments in your life that you think they’d be happy to hear about, ask for their advice as you make a next step, or just say you’ve been thinking about them and would love to see how they are. Trust me, professors aren’t aliens without human emotion. They’d be happy to hear that they made an impact on a previous student. The more you stay in touch, the stronger your future LORs will be.
Other mentors (e.g., PIs, bosses, lab managers, or anyone else who’s above you at any of your professional roles – it doesn’t have to be academic!):
Seek out as many opportunities as possible to meet with them 1:1. Ask them about themselves, ask for professional advice, or bring to them a new idea about a project to showcase your initiative.
You can reach out to new people who you’ve never met to cultivate a mentorship relationship with them. They might open doors for you and potentially serve as future letter writers.