How to Get Great Rec Letters

Aim to have 5 faculty that can write you a letter by the fall of your senior year. That way you will be able to choose best three from among the five. You do not want to beg for letters at the last minute, so you will need to maintain a relationship with faculty for multiple semesters. You can’t just “drop back in” their office 2 years later and expect a good letter.

 

Steps to Getting a Letter of Recommendation

 

Step 1: Target Faculty

Letters writers should be appropriate for what you need the letter for!

  • Faculty in the field related to the program/job you are applying for
  • Research mentors
  • Faculty outside the discipline you are applying for are occasionally good supplemental recommendation letters
  • Not club advisors, employers, or TAs

 

Step 2: Cultivate Relationships

How do letter writers know what to say about you? You must cultivate relationships with faculty months or years in advance. Be proactive to ensure that writers know who you are, what your achievements are and what you are doing to reach your goals.

  • Find times to talk with them: before/after class, office hours, in the hallway
  • Ask them for advice.
  • Tell them what you are “up to” and give them updates on your academics, research, and life!
  • Ask them about themselves.
  • Talk about current topics: campus, local, national, international
  • Follow up with them on topics of interest to them (“How was your trip to the conference in Germany?”)
  • Follow up with them on activities/events related to you (“I did get into that anthropology course, thanks for your advice!” or “Hey, my club raised $1000 for that charity!”)

Research Mentors are the ideal letter writers because they should know you more closely on a personal and professional level. Below is some advice from some of MU’s research mentors on what they are looking for in a student in their lab.

  • Be “present” in the lab – if it is something you’re interested in then ask Questions if it does not make sense, think about it and take initiative and responsibility for what you do.
  • I’m not hiring hands, I’m training a person to think –  and do science. Let me know what YOU think about the experiment / project / method. Talk to me – or others in the lab – about this so you can get a better understanding of the big picture as well as the details.
  • Knowing students are THINKING and not just doing is a wonderful thing! We can guide and correct misconceptions, we can’t create curiosity.
  • Show UP to lab meeting and engage in the discussion, ask questions, be attentive even if you don’t understand the topic, try to learn, go read something on your own and ask me about it, read papers our lab has published  then come ask me about it (I’d fall out of my chair!)
  • Be Persistent – I’m busy and may not always be in my office, but I want to talk to you!
  • I think the most important aspect of building a good relationship with the lab mentor is a clear sense of complete mutual trust. And also a clear willingness to receive from the mentor (knowledge, ideas, advice, etc.). And undivided loyalty to the lab.
  • In the past few years I have been approached by students that I feel just want to join my group for the rec letter. But if they put in some effort and read our group papers and have an interest in our research then that does a lot in my mind.
  • When I walk in the lab, you shouldn’t be browsing the internet and texting on your phone- use lab time for research, when you have down time between experiments, read science, read protocol books, ask if anything around the lab needs to be cleaned up or organized

 

Step 3: Ask

Asking for a letter should be easy now that you have a relationship! You can either ask for a letter in the short term (2+ weeks away) or for some time in the future (grad school application next year). Give them examples of times you showed responsibility, integrity, maturity, independence, analytical skills, and other skills you would ideally like referenced in their letter. And follow the additional steps below.

  • Tell them why you are asking them in particular instead of another person you have had class with.
  • Tell them who else you are asking and why!
  • Give at least 2 weeks warning, if not more!
  • Waive your rights to review the letter
  • Provide letter writers with information on yourself that they can easily reference:
    • Resume, list of activities and accomplishments (w/ details)
    • Transcript (unofficial copy ok!)
    • Personal Statement/Career Goals, etc.
    • Recent Research Abstract, copy of poster

 

Steps 4 & 5: Follow Up

You will need to check in with faculty to make sure that your letters have been sent. This should be done in a curious and tactful way, otherwise faculty may not write another letter for you. Once a letter is written, keep in touch with the faculty member in the same way you have been up until now — you never know when you will need an additional reference.

Short Term

  • Check with them tactfully to make sure letters have gone out!
  • Thank them! (yes, a card is still nice!)
  • Let them know on-going status of your applications.
  • Tell them where you were accepted/rejected.
  • You may have new applications. Don’t ask someone else!
  • Ask their advice about which offer to take.
  • Let them know where you are going!
  • When you return, talk to them about your experiences!

Long Term

  • Check with them tactfully to make sure letters have gone out!
  • Thank them! (yes, a card is still nice!)
  • Let them know on-going status of your applications.
  • Tell them where you were accepted/rejected.
  • You may have new applications. Don’t ask someone else!
  • Ask their advice about which offer to take.
  • Let them know where you are going!
  • When you return, talk to them about your experiences!

Student Responsibilities

  • Provide criteria/information on program/scholarship/fellowship:  program announcement, website, form/checklist.
  • Provide information on the deadline (postmark or receipt date?)
  • What is the delivery method? Electronic? Mailed by faculty? Given to student?  Sealed envelope?
  • Find out if they want you to give them an addressed envelope with a stamp on it.
  • Give them enough lead time to write a letter — at least two weeks.
  • Provide a resume, list of achievements, transcript, personal statement/essay, other documentation
  • Take the time to answer faculty questions about you/discussion of your goals
  • Who else is writing a letter and why?  (what is the role of THIS letter writer)
  • Follow up to make sure the letter is sent (be persistent without pestering)
  • THANK the letter writer!  A hand written note card is nice and professional and shows you care!  Ask for a box of note cards in your holiday stocking!
  • Inform faculty member as to outcome of the application & keep in touch with the faculty mentor long term

Actual advice from faculty at MU

Pet Peeves

  • Waiting too long before asking
  • Late, late, late!!!
  • Expecting a quick turnaround on letters (<3 weeks)
    Not sending any info on themselves prior to meeting with me or asking me to write a letter – assuming that I know all about them as well as they know themselves.
  • Not providing a complete packet (unofficial transcript, resume, personal statement)
  • Coming in out of the blue, telling me he/she had me two years ago, and expecting me to write a letter like I know them.
  • Students that either weren’t friendly to me (or were even disrespectful) in class, rarely attended class or talked to their neighbors (or fell asleep) while I was lecturing in class.
  • Students who barely talk to me all semester (despite lots of opportunity in the lab portion of my class) and then ask me for a letter of rec and expect me to be able to say something about them other than they got grade X.

Advice

  • Get to know some one WELL – way before you want a letter.
  • Have the personal statement and the resume consistent in describing skill sets.
  • Approach your professor after class with substantial questions, questions that show prior preparation and reading ahead in course work.
  • Get involved in significant volunteer work or research, not just occasional participation here and there in a philanthropy.
  • A letter from someone who was “just” your instructor in a class is OK but it would extremely rare for it to be in the same category as one from someone who really knew you from an activity such as research or close working relationship from some club or….
  • Start thinking EARLY about the fact that you will need recommendation letters.  This means:  Get to know the professors of your science classes, as you take them–organic chemistry, physics, genetics, cell biology, animal physiology.
  • Go to their office hours and talk about the coursework, anything interesting you are learning in the class that might be raising other questions for you, your career aspirations. Then…after the class ends, keep in touch.  Email is fine; an occasional visit to their office is better.  Then, when the time comes for the letter, your prof has not forgotten who you are.  Do not regard this as brown-nosing.  It is not; instead, it is what you must do to get a great letter of recommendation from someone who actually knows something about you.  We know you will need letters in the future, and many of us appreciate the opportunity to really know the students who do well in our classes.
  • Please Please Please, do NOT go to the professor of your 300-person class asking for a letter two years after you had the class if you never got to know them. Asking for a letter in this situation is likely to get you a turndown or a mediocre letter at best. (“Zeus was in my class of 350 students and got the top grade, so obviously he has academic talent. ”  Yuck!  the admissions committee will know that from the A+ on your transcript. That’s not a good letter.)  Poor letters can hurt you, because a lackluster letter sends the message that you did not do your job in cultivating a relationship with a professor who would write you an outstanding letter.