As a PhD student, I have seen a fair share of students who fail at obtaining a letter of recommendation either by asking improperly or failing to follow through to make sure the letter has been submitted. Having had to ask for a lot of letters in my career, I have the concept down to a science. Below are the steps for successfully getting a letter of recommendation from a professor. The steps are written in a one month countdown to the due date of the application.
One Month Prior
Email AT MINIMUM one month in advance. You honestly should aim for at least two months prior, but sometimes deadlines creep up on you. State in the email that you would like a letter of recommendation and ask to meet in person to discuss it. You should also attached your CV to the email. Hopefully, you will already have made a good impression on this professor by performing well in their class academically, but your CV gives a more personal touch as opposed to a face in the crowd. Meeting in person is crucial because it lets professors ask you important information about you that they can use in the letter and also lets them know that you are serious about getting the letter. Surprisingly, a lot of students ask for letters but then later don’t need them because they decide to no longer do an application. They then leave professors in the dark about this decision. Meeting them in person lets the professor know that you are a student who definitely needs and wants their recommendation.
Three Weeks Prior
The “one week follow up” can actually be one of your most important steps. Write a thank you letter and have the secretary put it into his/her mailbox. Writing a thank you note reminds the professor in an unobtrusive way and also makes them more likely to write it faster. NEVER include a gift card as this can be construed as bribery.
Two Weeks Prior
Call whichever school/place of work that you applied to and see if the letter has been submitted. If it has not, then email the professor thanking them again for the letter and remind them of the date it is due. Note for online applicants: although some places have you waive the right to SEE the letter, the application will generally let you see if the professor has actually submitted it or if it is pending.
One Week Prior
Repeat the steps above then go to the office hours of the professor and remind them about the letter. All professors have set office hours (usually ~2 hr a week) that they are required to maintain. Make sure you go during that time and not during unscheduled hours.
Hopefully (and most likely), the professor has remembered to submit the LOR. Unfortunately, sometimes, professors do forget or are in a time crunch. Go to the office of the professor (during office hours or by appointment). Remind the professor again of the letter. At this point, they will most likely tell you that they will have it submitted by that night.
Past Due Date
You call the place of application and the worst has happened: the letter was never sent. To prevent this from happening in general, you always want to ask for one more letter than is required for the position you want. However, sometimes we lack hindsight or there are a limited number of people we can ask. Never blame the professor whose LOR you want. Ask them if they could get the letter out ASAP even if it is past the due date. Most places and applications will overlook this if you call up the head of the admissions. I have never seen a professor forget to submit a LOR if you have followed the above steps. However, I have seen students put blame on the professors and email nasty responses to the professor once they realize that the letter hasn’t been submitted. This should never be your response as ultimately, it is your responsibility to able to get the required things for your application. Also, if you still want the professor’s letter, it is counterintuitive to verbally attack a person whose recommendation you want. More importantly, if you have done all of the above steps and the professor has forgotten, then he/she will most likely state this in the LOR and praise your perseverance.
Important Side Comments
A little known fact is that members of academia to check what times you email them. Never email a professor during irregular hours. If you email a professor or TA at 2 in the morning, they are going to assume that 1) you are up drinking and emailing him/her drunk (especially if there are misspellings/ramblings) or 2) that you are a procrastinator and are trying to pull an all-nighter. Neither of these are good. Also, NEVER approach a professor or TA off campus for a letter or to ask about the status of it. This is a social code that students have a tendency to break, but off hours are off hours. You can say hello or wave, but asking questions about a letter or course off campus will generally elicit a response from the professor such as “let’s talk about this in office hours” or “ask me in class”.
My name is Christine, and I am a graduate student in Texas (previous residents include California and Arizona). I love traveling and explored Canada, Spain, France, and England last year. My more fiscally responsible hobbies include drinking good wine and listening to BBC Radio. My dream would be to work in a neuroscience field while promoting the success of women in STEM.