- How do I ask for a recommendation?
- How far in advance should I ask for recommendations?
- How many letters of recommendation will I need?
- How should I prepare my recommenders?
- How should I check in with my recommenders?
- How should I thank my recommenders?
- What if my recommender goes dark?
- What if my recommender asks me to write their rec?
- What if my recommender is a bad writer?
- What if my recommender misses their deadline?
So, you’ve selected your recommenders. Congratulations! If you followed our advice in Selecting Your Recommenders you’ve taken a big step towards securing the stellar recommendations you need. But there are still many tasks ahead of you in the recommendation process, the first one being the delicate task of asking your recommenders if they’ll do it. When you are solidly focused on your own application goals and desires, you may forget that your recommenders also have busy lives of their own. Start off strong by asking recommenders for their help the right way.
How do I ask for a recommendation?
Do your best to ask each recommender in-person and one-on-one whether they’re willing to write for you. This strategy has several advantages. First, it creates a more meaningful and personal connection between you and your recommender. Second, asking in person means you can read their tone and body language far better than you could over the phone, by email, or via text. This interaction will give you an indication of how excited, nervous, or reluctant your recommender might be about writing this rec for you.
In addition to asking your recommenders in a personal way, you should word your request strategically. Don’t ask if they are willing to write you a recommendation. Ask them: “Can you write me an exceptional recommendation?” This phrasing shifts your potential recommender’s focus from their ability to decline to their desire and ability to help.
Additionally, it uses a stronger adjective. After all, you don’t want a recommender who will write you a good recommendation, you want someone who will write you a great one! Play around with your choice of adjective until you find one that feels comfortable to you; fantastic, extraordinary, noteworthy, and remarkable are all good examples.
If you’ve chosen the right recommenders, they should be both willing and able to help you. Once you’ve earned the “Yes” you need from a recommender, thank them on the spot and communicate your next steps.
Many problems you will encounter while gathering recommendations can be combated with one simple step: Give your recommenders 90 days. While this may seem like an enormous lead time, it’s the right amount. Here’s why: before your recommenders even start writing, there is a laundry list of things you have to do. You will need to brief them on your personal brand, relay any materials you want them to use (resume, transcript, etc.), give them the necessary link, login, or written prompts they’ll need, and communicate all due dates.
Once your prep work is complete, each recommender will need time to write one or more letters of recommendation, edit them, and submit them… on top of their regular work schedule. Remember that your recommenders are doing you a big favor, and you don’t want them to feel stressed! Making the letter submission process as efficient and seamless as possible for your recommenders will improve your applications significantly.
Your goal should be to have all of your recommendations submitted two weeks before the application deadline for each school. In addition to giving your recommenders 90 days, you can increase the likelihood of on-time submissions with these tips:
- Set a premature deadline: For most, 90 days between the recommendation request and the due date is enough. However, if you have a recommender that you know is particularly busy (or forgetful), you should feel comfortable giving them a fictitious deadline in advance of the real due date to ensure everything is submitted on time. If your lagging recommender misses this false deadline, it’s time to turn to an alternate recommender.
- Organize multiple deadlines: If a recommender is writing you multiple letters of recommendation (as is often the case), you should give them an easy way to keep track of their many deadlines (e.g., a calendar invite, a written chronological list of each school and its deadline). This will help your recommender prioritize each school and submit on time.
Since most graduate schools require one to three recommendations and most grad school hopefuls apply to between five and eight schools, it’s possible you’ll need anywhere from five to a whopping twenty-four recommendations. As dramatic as this sounds, a candidate who needs twenty-four recs (basically the worst case scenario) will need just four solid recommenders as a bare minimum, keeping in mind that no recommender should be asked to write more than six recommendations.
At the other end of the spectrum, where you need just five recs and could choose a single recommender for each, you may still choose to petition a smaller number of recommenders and have each of them write multiple recs. In this case, and with more moderate recommendation loads of ten to fifteen recommendations, you should distribute your recommendation assignments based on who knows you best. Assign the most recs to the recommenders who will do the best job, but remember that the more recs you ask for, the longer your recommender will need to write them.
Your recommendation heroes who are writing four, five, or even six recs for you will need to be notified farther in advance than other recommenders, and they should be thanked even more ardently.
Every successful project begins with setting the right expectations, and your graduate school recommendations are no different. These are the fundamental questions your recommender should be able to answer once you’ve set expectations:
- How many letters of recommendation they’re writing
- Which schools the recs are for
- What the specific prompt or question is for each rec and how they will access them
- How and when they should submit each rec
- Tell your brand story. State up front what your brand is; your recommender needs to know. Indicate the key character traits you’re trying to get across in your application and ask them to provide specific examples of them (feel free to remind them of experiences and achievements that fit the bill).
- Add context. Tell your recommender why you’re going to graduate school and what you plan to do with the degree. Detail what you believe each school is looking for, how you meet those requirements, and the stories your recommender can highlight to prove it. Lastly, give them your resume, transcript, and a list of your top skills to fill in the details.
How should I check in with my recommenders?
- Check the status of each recommendation submission online. A concrete sense of progress may give you peace of mind.
- Set all recommender deadlines two weeks early, rather than just the ones for your busiest recommenders.
- Send one email to your recommender each week, starting four weeks out from the given deadline.
- Send one text and make one phone call to your recommender each week, starting two weeks out from the given deadline.
How should I thank my recommenders?
What could go wrong?
What if my recommender goes dark?
- Your existing recommenders. If any of the recommenders who are already writing recs for you have a recommendation load of less than six, you may be able to ask them for one additional rec.
- The last round of cuts you made to your initial recommender list. These recommenders should still be reasonably qualified to write you a great recommendation.
- Your recommender said “Yes” to writing a recommendation, but when you sent more details or asked to set up a meeting, they never responded.
- Your recommender responded to your follow up emails originally, but slowly stopped answering as the deadline approached.
- Your recommender is still responding to your emails, but hasn’t submitted yet.
What if my recommender asks me to write their rec?Your response to this question should be no. Period. We strongly discourage you from attempting to write your own recommendation under someone else’s name for several reasons. First, it is fundamentally dishonest and unethical. A wrong move like this can irreparably damage an otherwise perfect application. And second, the admissions representatives that are reading your recommendations are the same ones that will be reading your essays and short answers… if they find similarities there, it won’t look like a coincidence.
Although you must stay strong in refusing to write the letter of recommendation for your recommender, there are ways to combat this challenge that are more tactful than accusing your recommender of being unscrupulous (which we do not recommend). First, outline your response in a way that makes the right choice sound obligatory rather than optional. Mention the school’s strict plagiarism policy or a specific notice you received (or didn’t, in reality) warning you against exactly this behavior. Next, empathize with your would-be recommender, expressing that you understand their busy schedule and will do your best to make the process as easy as possible for them. Then, follow through! List the specific steps you can take to simplify the process for them (e.g., write a thorough list of talking points, offer to answer any questions, meet in-person to discuss the rec, etc.).
What if my recommender is a bad writer?
What if my recommender misses their deadline?
How should I check in with my recommenders?What if my recommender goes dark?What if my recommender asks me to write their rec?
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