Whether you're applying for graduate school, a job, or a summer internship, chances are you will need letters of recommendation from professors who know you. Here are some tips that will help make this process easier for you and them, and get you the best possible letters to help you reach your goals.
WHOM should I ask to write a letter?
The best and most obvious choice is a professor who gave you a good grade in a class (or better yet, more than one class) and has been impressed by your academic performance. Ideally, the professor should also be able to comment on your creativity and personality. The instructor of your proseminar might be a good choice -- but any upper-level course (especially one requiring a paper) should give you a good opportunity to distinguish yourself and establish the kind of relationship that will result in a strong letter of recommendation.
WHEN do I start asking for letters?
As far in advance of your application deadline as possible. If you are applying to graduate school, one month before the deadline should be an acceptable lead-time. Do not wait until the last minute. This is practical as well as courteous; if you wait too long to make your request, the person may not have the time to write a letter or complete a form.
HOW do I go about asking for a reference?
See the professor in person. Only send an e-mail message if you are writing from out of town -- but definitely don't leave a note in their mailbox or office door saying "I need 3 letters to 3 different universities by Friday." If your schedule doesn't allow you to stop by during their office hours, you should e-mail them to arrange for an appointment. If you are writing, be formal and well-spoken -- and unless the professor knows you well, mention the course(s) you took with them (don't assume that they remember you by name.) If you wrote a paper for the course, it would help to bring a copy to your meeting, or if writing, mention the paper's topic.
WHAT do I give the professor when I ask for a reference?
As much information as you can. Include all of the items on this list:
- A description of each position or program for which you are applying.
- Application deadlines for each program/position
- A statement of your interest in the program/position (if applying to a graduate program, you will probably be required to write such a statement anyway).
- Your student record (you can request this through My UW, or order a campus copy transcript from 123 Peterson).
- Your resume (if you can't meet in person, this can take the place of the student record; it would be helpful in this case if you include your Art History coursework on the resume).
- Any forms or specific instructions or questions requested by the program/position for the letter of reference.
- A stamped, addressed envelope for each letter of reference -- in the case of graduate applications, they should be addressed to the program(s) you are applying to. For reasons of confidentiality, most professors prefer to send recommendations directly to the program, rather than let the student collect them and send them with their application package. Do not put a return address on the envelope.
NOTE: many programs now have a means of entering recommendations online. In these cases, please provide the URL or email address for submission of the letter.
AFTER the letter has been written, what should I do?
Let the professor know when you hear about your application, whether or not you were accepted. They will appreciate having a sense of participation in your future, and knowing how it all turned out will help them gauge future letters for you and other students.
WHAT is the Reference Letter Center, and how do I use it?
If you are planning to go to graduate school, you may find it helpful to open a file with the Reference Letter Center, a service offered (for a nominal fee) by the L&S/Human Ecology Career Services Office. You will still need to personally ask your professors to write letters for you, but the center will do most of the "legwork" in collecting and mailing recommendations, and they will keep all of your references on file for seven years. Visit their website, or stop by 905 University Avenue, Room 160, for more information on how it all works!