It is the day before winter break. Just before leaving for school, Lily realizes that she has yet to ask Mr. Ross and Ms. Williams to write her recommendations. They were her favorite junior year teachers, and she is certain they will give her glowing reports. She fills out the forms and shoves them in her backpack. When she gets to school, she can’t find Mr. Ross or Ms. Williams anywhere, so she decides to leave the forms on their desks for them. “It’s obvious what these forms are for,” she thinks to herself, “Plus, winter break starts tomorrow. Of course they will have time to write them.” Lily is very pleased with herself as she goes off to take her last midterm of the semester. However, this feeling is missing in mid-January when she receives notices from all the schools she applied to that her admissions files are not complete because the colleges never received her recommendations. Lily’s situation is the perfect example of what not to do when asking for recommendations. Let’s consider the major mistakes she made (and what she could have done to avoid them).
Wait Until the Last Minute: A sure-fire way to assure that you won’t get a good recommendation (or any recommendation at all) is to wait until just before the deadline. This situation can backfire in a myriad of ways. Some teachers, especially those who teach core subjects to juniors, are inundated with requests for recommendations and will put a cap on the number they can write. Waiting until the last minute can prevent you from getting these teachers to say yes. However, even if they agree to write you a recommendation, a short deadline can prevent them from writing a thoughtful, nuanced appraisal of your strengths and abilities.
What if an amazing opportunity comes up but it has a tight deadline? You should still definitely apply, and you should ask for recommendations if they are needed. However, be certain to ask your recommenders politely and inform them of the deadline. Also, be prepared for them to say “No.” While many people will try to accommodate your requests, this recommendation is likely not the only thing they have to accomplish. If they agree, thank them profusely and offer to provide any assistance they might need. If they decline, thank them for their consideration and move on to plan B.
Don’t Bother Asking: Besides being rude (which definitely does not work in your favor), assuming that someone will write you a recommendation without asking robs both you and your recommender the opportunity to talk about your plans and prevents you from providing relevant information. Even if you think a teacher will write you a glowing letter, asking is important. It might be the case that your perception of how you did in a class is different than the teacher’s recollection. Perhaps you thought that you contributed a lot to class discussions when the teacher only heard you speak up once or twice the entire year. In a situation like this, it is vital to talk to your potential recommender to discuss why you want him or her to write your recommendation and to provide insight on what you got from the class.
Also, asking if a recommender is willing and able to write you a recommendation is a common courtesy. Even if teachers say they will write you one, it is always good to follow up and ask when the time comes. You never know if their schedules have become unexpectedly busy, and it is better to err on the site of caution (and respect).
Forget to say the Magic Words (aka “Please” and “Thank You”): Remember what I said about rudeness in the last point? The same idea applies here. Let’s say that you have done everything else right so far. You asked your teachers if they would be willing to write your recommendations in May. In September, you are preparing to give them the forms. You have a choice. Do you place the forms on their desks with terse note (or even worse, no note at all)? Or do you take a few extra minutes to write a short, thoughtful note explaining the forms and thanking your recommender for their time?
Including a polite note is particularly important when it has been months since you last connected with your recommender. I had a former student who asked me in December to write her a recommendation for a graduate program. I wrote the letter, sent it, and let her know that I had finished it. Several months later, after not hearing from this student, I received a package in the mail with two additional recommendation forms and envelopes. There was no note explaining when the forms were due. I had to track the student down and ask her by what date I needed to mail the recommendations.
Don’t Follow Up: Most teachers get dozens of papers and emails a day, and even the most organized person can forget about a due date or misplace a document. After you have given your teachers the forms, you should check in with them a week or so before the deadline (provided that they haven’t already told you that they mailed your recommendations). This can give you piece of mind, help prevent the headaches that come with incomplete admissions files, and provide the teachers with a gentle reminder if needed.
However, be certain not to confuse this point with making a pest of yourself. It is one thing to send a well-timed, courteous email to make sure that the recommendations were sent. It is another thing to flood your teacher’s inbox with emails demanding to know why College X hasn’t received her letter yet.
Need more tips about recommendations? Check out our earlier blog posts on the topic.