Asking for a letter of recommendation feels as intense as a death march. You get to find out once and for all whether your professor, advisor or mentor likes you as much as you like them. Hence, the anxiety sets into your head.
Regardless of how you feel, you’ll need to develop that relationship in order to ask for a killer letter. First, you’ll want to take control of the direction of the conversation when a pause comes up and you’ve finished your discussion. You don’t want to switch topics mid-thought because you can come across rude and uninterested. For students who’ve never communicated with professors, be polite and to the point when asking for a letter of recommendation.
Students with difficulties meeting their professor because of conflicting work or class schedules can still ask for a letter of recommendation if they succeeded in class. A better-than-passing grade establishes the merit for a student to ask their professor for a letter of recommendation. “If the student is from a 300 student class where its difficult to know the professor or difficult to meet the professor in general I ask the student to visit my office hours and I talk to them to find out what they need the letter of recommendation for,” said UCLA Associate Director of Cotsen Institute Dr. Lothar Von Falkenhausen.
Think of three-ring binders as the Holy Grail when you need to remind your professor of who you are. The binder serves as a mini-bio should include your resume, curricula vitae (CV), a brief summary of yourself and any other relevant or important documents. If the three-ring binder feels like too much, use a manila folder.
Besides giving your professor a cheat sheet of who you are, students can meet their professors and converse with them. Dr. Falkenhausen said, “I try to meet the student if I don’t know them so the letter can be more personal.” A personal letter benefits students because it creates a good impression for the graduate advisor they wish to work with, or the graduate program they want to enter.
Remember to set a deadline for your professor or advisor of when your letter of recommendation is due. Be polite and ask for the letter of recommendation four to five weeks in advance and remind them throughout the period. Keep in mind to remind your mentor around three to four days before the deadline if your professor or advisor has not yet submitted the letter.
What about the horrible scenario where a professor tells a student no? As a student in such a delicate position, we must remain calm and be respectful to the professor. “I [would thank] her for her time and for letting me come speak with her. I [would become] fake business professional with her and politely let myself out,” said UCLA third year David Dixon.
Whether a professor decides to write a letter of recommendation for you or not, as students, we need to be respectful. On a positive note, having no letters of recommendation to submit trumps submitting a bad one.
Realistically, a professor always has a specific reason for denying the student. Dr. Falkenhausen said, “In the very rare instances I can’t write a positive letter of recommendation I will tell the student to find a professor where they have done better. We try not to lie because people value our letters of recommendation.” Want to avoid rejection or any awkwardness? Be realistic when deciding which professor to ask.
If you still feel unsure, try emailing professors in graduate programs that you think you might want to apply for. That’ll give you a good change to practice contacting and communicating with professors. Who better to ask for the best way to approach a professor than another professor?