I Know You’re Busy, But. . . . .

October 18, 2009

I call them “drive by” requests for letters of recommendation, those notes in my mailbox or emails in my inbox that say, “I know you’re busy, but I need a letter of recommendation. . . . .” Usually the person needs the letter almost immediately, and almost never do these students follow up with an in-person or phone confirmation. They leave it to me to track them down and try to get the necessary information. And that’s if I have time. Sometimes I don’t, especially if it’s a last minute request. This week’s theme of fun in learning is teacher attitude, and requests like this definitely affect my attitude. Asking for a letter is asking for a favor. Make it clear that you understand this when you request one. And be understanding when it can’t be granted.

There are many reasons that students need letters of recommendation while they are still in school: scholarship and fellowship applications, internship opportunities, admittance to special programs or graduate school, and for jobs to help support their studies. You never know when you’ll need a letter and that’s why I recommend that you think of every one of your teachers as a possible letter writer and act accordingly. I enjoy writing recommendations for students when I can genuinely write the kind of letter they’re requesting. A challenge for me is that students sometimes want letters recommending them as teachers, something I can’t do if I haven’t seen them in the classroom teaching. Be sure that the person you’re approaching can speak to your qualifications.

There are several kinds of references you may need. An academic reference attests to the quality of your work in and for class as well as to your character as a learner. Sometimes, the soft skills I wrote about yesterday may be addressed. A character reference speaks to the kind of person you are and definitely addresses the soft skills, and a recommendation for a paid or unpaid job may include elements of academic and character letters with a focus on your qualifications for a particular position, another reason for you to be very specific about the purpose of the letter. Sometimes letters are a blend of all three, but the writer must know what kind of letter is needed.

There’s plenty of good advice about letters of recommendation on the internet—just Google© “asking for a letter of recommendation.” Here are some general etiquette points to remember based on my frustrations (other teachers may have different advice—ask):

• No matter how well a teacher may know you, s/he needs exact current information. This includes the name under which you are applying—if you are Lili Jones in class, for example, but the letter needs to reference your full name, Amelia Lillianne Jones, say so. Before I began asking students to sit down with me to help write the letter, I wrote a recommendation for a student who used her maiden name in class because that was the name she was registered under. She never mentioned to me that she had just gotten married and was applying for a teaching job under her new name. It wasn’t a big deal to change the letter, but had this been a time when I sent the letter to the school district without her review, it wouldn’t have gotten into her file.

• Provide a copy of your resume if it’s applicable. Even if you don’t include a resume, you should provide a list of the activities you’ve been involved in, courses you’ve taken (along with your GPA), and any other pertinent information that will help the teacher write a recommendation that doesn’t sound generic.

• Include a reminder of the course(s) you’ve taken from the teacher, along with some specifics about your work in the course. For example: “You may remember me from your ENG 101 course. My final paper was an exploration of the hidden messages in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, and you said that it was the most creative analysis of his work you’d read in years.”

• To whom should the letter be addressed? Provide the name, title, and address.

• Provide details about the purpose of the letter and the things you would like to have included. Be specific, but also realize that these may not be things the teacher is comfortable addressing. This is one of the many reasons you should follow-up to any request for a letter and make sure that the person can write the kind of letter you need. I require students who want a letter from me to make an appointment to sit down with me and help write the letter. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve been told that someone doesn’t have time to do this. Those folks don’t get letters.

• Ask for a letter a month or two in advance and send reminders as the time gets closer. I don’t mind an email request, but it needs to be a request and not an order, and it needs to include enough information so that I can decide if I am the right person to write the required recommendation. I will still need follow-up information and still require an appointment. Do not ask for a letter in class or in the hall and expect someone to remember. Do not provide verbal information. These are just other versions of the drive-by request! Everything needs to be provided in writing.

• Give the person all of your information in a folder with your name and the date by which you need the letter on the front.

There are lots of other hints I could provide, but the bottom line is this: when you ask for a letter of recommendation, you’re asking for someone’s time and creativity. Don’t take it for granted. Provide all the help you can, and accept a no if it’s given. You really don’t want a reluctant recommendation.

Write a letter of recommendation for yourself before you ask for one from someone else. What would you want it to say? If you can’t do this, how can you expect someone else to?

If you want to jumpstart your brain with a generic letter, check out http://boxfreeconcepts.com/generators/letfemproc.html. This site creates letters that sound good but really say nothing.

The habit of being uniformly considerate toward others will bring increased happiness to you.
• Grenville Kleiser



  1. A wonderfully lucid and pragmatic essay. I so enjoy your ability to take a mundane topic and infuse it with a sublime, humorous tone. How delightful it is to see your skills deftly applied as you discuss the etiquette involved in requesting a letter of reference while speaking to the larger issue of a dearth of societal standards of courtesy and respect. You have been, still are, and always will be (in my less than humble opinion) The Almighty Z!

  2. Many thanks from W-OZ!

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