A personal and practical account of best practices when requesting a letter of recommendation. Having a well-thought out, timely and professional approach from the offset is key.
Almost every two months I would receive a student request for a letter of recommendation for various purposes, ranging from applications for internships, conferences, study transfers, masters and Ph.Ds. Since the first request received in February 2015, I have written a total of 39 recommendations for our students or graduates, averaging 6.5 letters per year. This number would even be greater if I did not turn down a lot of requests due to my packed schedule.
I think that writing letters of recommendation for students does not only attest to their competences but also helps them land an opportunity where their talents and aspiration lie. Recollecting my college years, I was also a beneficiary of such recommendations from my teachers.
I shall not share my experience as a recommendation requester here. Instead, given my experience as a reference over the years that has witnessed various requests in different forms, I will happily share some of the tips I believe to be useful for students asking for a letter of recommendation. Most importantly, I hope to convey a single, important message to students: your recommendation has started once you click your mouse to send out your first email request for a reference.
Who is eligible to write a letter of recommendation?
The first question, of course, is to whom should I send my request? In the first place, a letter of recommendation is an evidence-based endorsement for the candidate. Therefore, you should approach references who possess proof of your competences, qualifications and achievements relevant to the position you are applying for. Insofar as EHL students are concerned, these references are your professors and/or supervisors of your thesis and/or group projects. However, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a recommendation to serve your purpose. In the second place, you should reduce your list of references down to a handful of key people who have the most positive evidence for your endorsement. For example, you can go through your transcript and identify one or two courses in which you achieved the highest grades or recall a group project or thesis that impressed the professor. As an undergrade, the most compelling evidence that warrants a professor’s endorsement is your academic performance in their course.
Some of you may wonder "what if my academic performance is not as stellar as the reference would expect?" To be honest, this would make it hard for you to get a solid recommendation for academic purposes, say, an application to a master’s degree. Even if a professor is so kind to write a recommendation for you, it would be difficult for him or her to find sufficient evidence to substantiate their recommendation, let alone make you stand out. Yet a lesson to be learned here is that we, as students, need to make our academic study our first priority. It is not realistic to expect every student excel in every subject, but it is possible that a student can excel in one subject or two through dedication and perseverance. This provides you with the evidence.
How to approach a potential reference
After you have identified a potential reference, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind when requesting a recommendation. It might not be surprising to anyone that email is the most effective and formal way to communicate with the reference. Over the past few years, most students have contacted me via my official email asking for a recommendation. Occasionally students texted me via LinkedIn or WeChat, which might be convenient from students’ point of view but these are certainly informal channels. It also occurred to me that student A asked student B to ask me to write a recommendation for A. While I have no intention to judge what would be the most appropriate way to approach a professor, I am obliged to emphasize that requesting a letter of recommendation should follow formal business etiquette the same way as students file an application to their chosen universities or employers. Once you decide to contact a reference, be sure that this is going to be a formal business communication between you and the reference throughout the whole process. Therefore, it's best to avoid any private or informal channels when sending out your request. The more formally you deliver your request, the more seriously it will be treated.
What to include in the request
In writing a request via email which I recommend, make sure that the email is concise but informative. Besides asking whether the professor will be willing to write a recommendation for you and for what purposes, you’d better state when and where you first encountered him or her and on what occasion. This will help the professor recall you and retrieve more information about you if necessary. You should also state the due date of the recommendation, which would not only help the professor flag it in their schedule but will allow you to get the recommendation as soon as possible. Missing the deadline will have huge consequences for students. In this regard, you need to plan your applications in advance and allocate at least a few weeks to collect the recommendations. It’s unwise to ask for a recommendation to be delivered in a few days simply because the deadline is approaching. Unfortunately, this happens sometimes and the request is usually denied.
A recommendation starts as soon as a request email is sent out because the reference can decide whether or not to endorse you based on your email. Imagine yourself as a reference receiving an email request that is full of with solecisms, would you be confident that the candidate deserves your recommendation? This is, however, not a hypothetical question; it has occurred to me multiple times, and I shall not enumerate the grammatical mistakes. But these mistakes, as far as I can tell, were not because students did not know the grammar rules, but because of their inadvertence and sloppiness in writing the email request. If a student takes the email request seriously, they should double check the email or even let their peers have a look, which would easily eradicate the mistakes. If the reference is not confident about you, they will not be confident in recommending you to others. Thus, recommend yourself to the reference before you can be confidently recommended!
Tips for a denied request
If, unfortunately, your request is denied by a reference, there must be a reason, though sometimes implicit, in the reference’s reply. It could be that they are not available or because they may not be the most appropriate reference for you. I still remember turning down quite a few requests from some brilliant students in 2016 because my schedule was packed and I could not accept further requests.
In this regard, I have two tips to offer. First, you should always target at least two potential references. If one declines your request for whatever reason, you still have a backup. But please do not send your request to more than one reference at the same time unless you’re requiring two or more recommendation letters. If both agree to write a recommendation while you only need one, this will be a waste of time for the references and a waste of opportunity for the reference to accept other students’ requests. Second, even if a reference denies your request, it is highly recommended that you reply politely and express your understanding of the decision.
It is taken for granted that we usually send a thank-you note to references if they have accepted our request. However, a thank-you note to a reference who has denied your request may open a different door for you sooner or later. Opportunity comes when the reference may recommend you in one way or another during your studies or career even though you’re not aware of it. It is worth showing your appreciation, not only because someone does you a favor now, but because someone may perhaps do you a favor in the future. Appreciation is not only a matter of courtesy but of mutual understanding.