Letters of Recommendation
What is a Letter of Recommendation?
A Letter of Recommendation (LOR) is a letter written by someone who knows you in a professional capacity, and who attests to your good personal qualities and skills. It’s a letter where someone recommends you to an employer, or, in this case, a graduate program.
Back in the old days these were physical letters that you had to ask someone to write and seal before you (or the writer) mailed them to universities you were applying to. Thankfully these days the process is a bit less labour intensive, and letters are now either sent by the writer via email or are uploaded by the writer to some online application portal.
In general, you can expect to be asked to provide contact details for 2-3 references per application, although some may go as high as 6 (Rhodes), and you can, of course, use the same letter writers for applications at different universities.
Who should I ask?
Keep in mind what you’re applying for: a graduate program.
There may be a mix of classes and research in your future degree, and the main goal of your application is to convince the admissions committee that you are competent in both. For that reason, the best choices for letter writers are (a) professors/lecturers whose classes you did well in and (b) research supervisors.
If you’re applying to a PhD then research will hold a greater weight (it forms the majority of your PhD, after all), and so you want to maximise the number of supervisors in your list of 2-3.
For lecturers/professors, you will want to ask people whose class you did well in and whose class you participated fully in. Your letter writers need to answer questions like “is this person a pleasure to teach?” and “do they work well in teams?”. If the sum total of your interactions with them were submitting assignments once a week then they will have no way to answer these questions as they don’t know who you are and they don’t know your character. They can probably say with confidence “I can confirm [name] was a student in my class in [year], attended the majority of lectures, and earned [grade] in the course”, but what value is that? Admissions can read your transcript and see that information for themselves—they rely on letters for information that isn’t in your CV, statement of purpose, or interview. Letters that do nothing more than regurgitate the grade you got in a course are known as “Did-Well-In-Class” (DWIC) letters, and they are not good. In fact, a mediocre letter is quite bad because it suggests that mediocre is truly the best option you had, meaning you made a good impression on fewer than 2-3 people over 4+ years of study!
I did research with someone but I don’t want to / can’t ask them for a letter…
This is tricky. It’s not just a lost opportunity if you have a research supervisor and don’t get a letter from them, it can actually be something of a red flag or oddity. From the admissions point of view, the best letter is very obviously a supervisor letter, and so it’s suspicious when you clearly have such a supervisor, perhaps because you mentioned your research experience on your CV, and have elected not to include their letter.
If the person has passed away or left academia and you no longer have contact, that can be a simple enough thing to answer if the question comes up in an interview. You can also ask your other letter writers to address this fact in their own letters.
But what do you do if you don’t have a good relationship with a previous supervisor? If your falling out was related to egregious behaviour like sexual harrassment, and particularly if there is a documented case, I think you should feel free to mention that fact. It’s not pleasant and it may not be “polite” or “comfortable” conversation in an interview, but if the interviewers are going to ask then they should be prepared for this kind of answer. Try to keep any discussion at a high level though, whether it’s in interview or in an “extra information” box on your application. They’re not entitled to all the gory details and you should not feel pressured to provide them.
If your relationship soured for other reasons, particularly if those reasons are not widely known/accepted, you might instead want to dodge the question by simply stating that you feel your chosen letter writers know you best. But this is a personal question and the way you approach it will vary a huge amount depending on the specifics and what you feel is the best path forwards.
The best solution to this problem, however, is to avoid the situation. If you have heard rumours that a particular supervisor is abusive or otherwise unsavoury, don’t work with them. A bad supervisor can seriously harm your career, no matter how famous or impressive their research is.
When do I ask them?
You want to give people plenty of time to think over your request and give a response (yay or nay) before maybe writing a letter and navigating the bureaucracy involved in submitting the thing. As a good rule of thumb, you should reach out no later than 1 month before the deadline. If you know someone is a bit flakey on emails or you think some letter writers might turn you down, then add on another month or so. This gives you plenty of time to send requests, wait a week, send a follow-up request, wait another couple of weeks, and then move on if you still haven’t gotten a response.
How do I ask them?
✅ Use the correct salutation, e.g. Dr or Prof
✅ Introduce yourself in case they might have trouble placing your name, e.g. “My name’s John Smith and I was in your XYZ500 class last semester”
✅ Tell them that you’re applying to graduate programs in [field] for entry in [year]
✅ Ask if they would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation. This is in case they don’t really remember you and can only write a DWIC letter. If you only ask for a letter then they may say yes when really they ought to decline.
🆗 If you feel they’re very likely to say yes, you could attach your CV to this email. Otherwise, if you’re not certain and there’s a chance they’ll say no, wait until after you get affirmation before sending more info.
Some other tidbits
Don’t try to find some different combination of 2-3 people for every program you apply to. You’re not saving anyone any time or effort since once one letter is written, the writer can just make minor alterations and send to many programs without much extra hassle, so it’s perhaps 1 hour for the first program and then 5 minutes for each additional program — if you apply to 5 programs then this is 1hr 20min of labour. If you try to “spread the load around” and get 3 new writers for all 5 programs then what you’re actually asking for is 3x1x5 = 15 hours of labour.
Send program invites all at once. Same as the above, “spreading” the workload increases it. If they get 5 invites to upload a letter within an hour then they can upload the letter 5 times in one day. If you spread it out over weeks then you’re asking for at least 5x the effort. It’s not the helping hand you think it is. Provide your letter writers with the task and then allow them to set their own schedule for doing it, don’t impose what you think is a good schedule.
Provide letter writers with all of the information they might need to write a good letter. This includes your CV and possibly your statement of purpose / research proposal. You can also try writing a “brag sheet”, where you outline the things you’d like to highlight in your application so your writer can say something in support of those points.
Keep it all organised! With many letter writers writing for many programs with many different deadlines, things will get confusing for everyone very quickly. Keep all relevant details in a spreadsheet. Use this spreadsheet to track who has written letters and who needs a nudge.
Send your letter writers their own spreadsheet with program names, due dates, and links to portals. If it helps you, it helps them.
Decide ahead of time how and when you’re going to remind people of deadlines, and let them know that you’re going to remind them. A common method is the rule of halves, so if you ask for a letter a month in advance and they agree, you would then remind them 2 weeks from the deadline, then at a week, 4 days, 2 days, and 1 day.
Think about backups. Sometimes, for whatever reasons, a professor doesn’t get a letter in on time, or at all. If you fall short of the required number of letters as a result, you could be rejected. Many programs will have some grace period after the deadline for late letters. Some programs will accept an extra letter and so you might submit 4 instead of 3 in case one goes MIA. But other times they are strict on the limit. If someone appears to have truly gone MIA a few days out from the deadline, start contacting backup options. Explain the situation to them. Apologise for the late request. And hope they’ll say yes and write for you.
At the end of your admissions season, whether you get in anywhere or not, please update your letter writers and thank them for taking the time to recommend you! They are invested in your future and will be very interested to hear the outcomes of your applications.