How To Ask Professors For A Grad School Recommendation

14 March 2012

So you’re almost done with college? Congratulations! In many cases, this means that you are almost done with tests and papers for good. You can now go out into the real world, get a job, and put your decades of formal schooling behind you. Certainly, the moment is probably a bittersweet one.

But many of us aren’t ready to call it quits on our education career when college comes to an end. Instead, we look to take the next academic step and make our way towards graduate school.

Graduate school where we can hone a narrow skill and prepare for a job in teaching, research, or consulting. Rigorous and individually-driven, grad school can take up to a decade to complete.
Applying to grad school means researching professors and programs, taking the GRE exam, assembling work and writing samples, and preparing to take out some beneficial graduate student loans with competitive interest rates.

A key part of most application processes is the letter of recommendation. Graduate schools want to see that you have the intellectual capacity and enthusiasm for their program, and there’s no better way to assess this than by receiving letters from professors with whom you have worked.

How can you go about getting these letters of recommendation? Here’s a quick breakdown:

1. Decide who to ask. The obvious first step is to pick the teachers that can best represent you in a letter. The ideal professor is someone who knows you well, works in the field of your desired grad school program, and simply seems like someone who would write a great letter. Some students furthermore choose to ask professors who have graduated from – or worked at – a grad school that they would like to attend.

2. Put together a portfolio. Once you’ve decided to ask a given professor, you now should compile a portfolio before actually asking them. This portfolio can include papers you’ve written for their class, projects you’ve done for them as a research assignment, or any other academic material which you’d like them to discuss. Attach to this portfolio a list of your grad schools and any other information (forms, deadlines, etc.) that may go with each one.

3. Ask the professor in person. Schedule a meeting with your professor or visit him during office hours with the purpose of requesting a recommendation. Then, politely inquire whether he’d be interested in writing a recommendation for you. If yes, hand him a copy of your portfolio and then discuss your interests and goals with him so as to provide added material. If no, thank your professor for his time and convey your understanding in the matter.

4. Follow up. Your job is not done after the letter has been requested. First, in the days after discussing the recommendation with your professor, send an email that thanks him again for his help and rehashes any important points you’d like made. Later, as application deadlines approach, send a gentle reminder email if you have not already received confirmation that the letter has been sent. And, finally, don’t forget to update your professor once the whole process comes to an end.

These are the four main steps to follow when asking for a letter of recommendation. Make sure to give your professors plenty of time to get your recommendations written and sent. Applying to grad schools can be a stressful time, but there’s no reason that the letter-requesting process need contribute to it.

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