Dear Dr. Baldwin,
Can you write me a letter of recommendation for a scholarship that I want to apply for?
At this time of the year, when scholarships and internships are open for application, I get about a dozen or so requests from students to write them letters. Some of the emails, like the one above, come after I explicitly tell students from previous semesters to let me know if they need me to write one for them. And I am honored to do so, as I know many students struggle to find someone who can write about them in specific, concrete ways that allow their strengths to shine. I truly like writing them. Really, I do.
But there are ways to ask and then there are ways to ask for a letter.
Here is a typical response from me for an email request as the one above:
Of course, I will be honored to write you a letter of recommendation, but I need to know a few things first so I can write one that allows your true, wonderful self to peek through. Can you provide me with the following as soon as possible?
- Name of Person/Committee/Organization that I will be addressing. It always helps to craft a letter that specifically names the person or entity.
- Where it will be sent and how. Will I receive an email with a link to upload the letter? Will I need to mail it myself? Will you need to pick it up and submit it with other application materials? This will help me be on the lookout for an email from an unknown party or to know that I need to buy some stamps (more on that further down in the list).
- Information about the type of scholarship you are applying for. It is merit-based, need-based, or other? This information will help me determine what kind details I will emphasize.
- Due date. This is perhaps the most important of all because it helps me manage my time. If you need something quickly, you can still ask, but I will need to assess whether or not I am able to produce it on time.
- Copy of your resume or brief list of your accomplishments and your long-term goals. In other words, what else can I highlight about you that may have changed since we last talked. I don’t want to write about your dreams of being a veterinarian, as you told me last semester, when you are now interested in marketing.
- Other materials. In the event that the recommendation letter needs to be mailed, can you provide me with addressed, stamped envelope(s) to mail the letter? This is a common courtesy and expedites the process.
As you can see, the original email was rather thin on details that I needed to determine if I could write a letter (This is why the due date is important!) and to determine the quality of a letter I could write. I would also add that if the student had been one of mine from a few years ago, a current photo would also have been helpful to jog my memory should I not totally remember specific details at first. If the goal is to get a good letter of recommendation, then a little time and attention to details will help the recommend-er (if that is even a word).
But, wait! There’s more. Once the agreement is secured and the information has been provided, the recommendation process does not end when the letter is sent. The student has two additional tasks that will forever solidify their place in the heart of anyone who writes them a recommendation letter:
- A note of gratitude. Yes, I said it: The student needs to (must?) write a thank you note to the person who spent considerable time and energy making them look good to others. A handwritten, mailed note is always preferable, but a sincere email may also suffice. A mere “thanks” in person, over the phone, or in a text is nice, but not the same.
- A follow-up on the outcome. I, like many who are excited by students’ endeavors, want to know how it turned out. Did they get the scholarship? Were they chosen for the internship? Following up with those who wrote letters of recommendation allows the student and them to create closure as well as prime them in the event that the student may need another letter. This is where a note of gratitude can grease the wheels. I know that I am much more excited to write another letter for a student who has genuinely expressed appreciation for what I did the last time.
And as if on cue, just as I wrote the last sentence above, I received an email thanking me for writing two letters for one student. See! I am so glad that I could help that student out and will remember that next time she asks.