Professors love to write letters for their favorite students.
We really do.
But you also must understand that many of us are wandering around with our hair on fire. We are so busy we cannot even respond to your email, let alone your somewhat vague request for a letter of recommendation.
I’ll let you in on the secrets of (1) how to increase the chances a professor will want to write a letter of recommendation, and (2) how to request the letter that will prompt them to say, “I’d be delighted to write you a letter for law school!”
1. How to become that student
It’s not about grades. Or how much you talk in class.
Being respectful, genuine, curious, and conscientious is enough to get you noticed.
I don’t mean compliant. Nor do I mean you are a conformist and don’t ask questions in class.
Respectful means you do not send emails at 6pm the night before a paper is due, asking whether your thesis statement makes sense.
Respectful means you treat a professor as you would an elder in your community.
More often than not, my favorite letters to write are about students who are quiet but show creativity, have excellent writing skills, and have a mind of their own.
They let me know they’re shy and have a hard time speaking in class. We problem solve that together. They tell me if something isn’t going well for them in class (e.g., I said something that was offensive).
Curious & Conscientious
I don’t expect students to be rule-following fascists. Quite the opposite. But if I spend many hours writing a detailed syllabus, I expect that you’ll read it and not ask me an obvious question.
Come to office hours! Or ask about the course material over email. And don’t just ask for the sake of asking. We can tell if you’re being insincere. Show interest in more than simply earning a good grade.
Finally, if we don’t know you, we cannot write a letter for you. I ask all my advisees to have taken at least two courses with me. If that’s not possible, try to get to know me through office hours.
2. How to ask for the letter
In general, it’s probably better to do this in person, but that’s not always possible.
If you go the email route, here’s an email script (notice what you should attach to the email):
Dear Professor [insert last name]:
I hope you are well.
I’m writing to ask you if you’d be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me for [insert what it’s for]. The letter isn’t due for two months, but I wanted to be sure to ask you about it as soon as possible.
I’ve attached an unofficial transcript, my resume [or CV], a draft of my statement of purpose, and my best paper from [insert class name title].
Thank you for taking the time to consider my request. I’ve enjoyed your classes about [insert the subjects]. [Insert a sentence about what, specifically, you enjoyed].
If you are able to write the letter, let me know and I’ll forward the details to you about the submission procedure.
All the best,
[Insert your name]
Notice that you should give a professor as much advance notice as possible (at least a month). Do not ask them to write a letter in a week. You should also provide them enough information to write a letter. The more details you can provide about yourself, the better!
Dr. Rose Ernst was chair and associate professor of political science until she decided to pursue writing and editing full time (June 2019). She is now an academic editor and consultant who loves to support scholars in sharing their brilliance with the world. Find her at roseernst.net. Sign up for her email list here.
This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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