Some tips on the recommendation letter you’re going to ask for

I would say that it’s recommendation letter season, but that seems to be all the time these days. I wrote 21 last semester and have written 18 recommendation letters so far this semester. There are times where recommendation letters feel like sand — they get in every crack of my day and I will spend weeks on end doing nothing but writing them.

The funny is that I enjoy writing most recommendations. It’s a way to help students take a step towards their dreams, which is the business I’m in. But sometimes students look at recommendations as something that they’re entitled to. I’m not a fan of that. So I wrote out some thoughts on what the recommendation letter looks like from my side of the desk.


  1. Writing you a recommendation is an investment in time.  You’ve asked me for a recommendation for something. I’m probably happy to do it. Then you ask me again for another recommendation. I’m probably less happy to do it. This is a function of workload. Writing a good recommendation takes me about 30 minutes. If I have five of them to write, that’s 2 1/2 hours out of my week.  I save every recommendation letter I write as both a Word doc and a PDF. So I can sometimes adjust them quickly. But when it has to be very specific to a position, it adds to the work.
  2. I like it when you come and ask me personally. This is personal preference, but I think a face-to-face request is simple good manners. There are times when you can’t do this (like when you’re abroad or you’ve come to my office and I haven’t been in), but I think you should make the effort if it’s not an exceptional circumstance. I don’t want you to genuflect and kiss my ring; I want to see your body language and see if you’re excited about the opportunity. And I want to ask you questions about it. It’s probably a pretty cool opportunity that you’re going for; I’d like to know more about it.
  3. Give me time. The worst thing in the recommendation letter world is being told “I’m really sorry, but the deadline is tomorrow.” Try and give me at least two weeks. I am trying to fit your letter into a schedule. If it’s something that has come up in a hurry, tell me that. If it’s because you totally ate it on the deadline, remember that your emergency is not my emergency.
  4. Your relationship with me is not the same as my relationship with you. If I’m doing my job right, you shouldn’t know if you’re a favorite or an, um, not-favorite.  But understand that I have opinions about you and your work. Which means that I have different levels of recommendations. I call them “A,” “B and “C” level recommendations. They have nothing to do with grades. They’re mostly about your intangibles — teachability, attention to detail, ability to generate ideas, potential, etc. Sometimes it’ll be about your performance in my class — like if you fell asleep in there or if you really struggled but kept after it. That “C” letter looks a lot like “This person was in my class. Enrollment in the class meant they would have worked to achieve skills X, Y and Z.” Any halfway intelligent person who reads it will know that I’m just not that into you. So feel free to ask if I’d give you an “A,” “B” or “C” recommendation.
  5. My reputation is on the line, too. If you apply for an internship and I write you a recommendation letter, I’m endorsing you. There’s ways I can write a letter that will damn you with faint praise (see No. 4 above), but I’d really like to write you a letter that’s going to get you a job. But I won’t if I don’t think you’re able to hack it — or if I think that your performance in a program is going to harm my credibility in getting another student into the program down the road.
  6. The more I know about you — and the more I know you — the better the letter usually is. It’s very hard to write a recommendation for you if you sat in the back of my introductory newswriting class and didn’t talk all semester and never came to see me during office hours. I don’t know what motivates you or what you want to do with your life. I don’t get how this internship is going to fit into your life plan. I’ve created a form that I push everyone who asks me for an internship towards; it collects those details for me. This is especially important if I don’t know you very well.
  7. I really want you to own your issues — and explain them to me. Did you struggle in my class? Tell me why. Are you asking me to write you an appeal to get into a program you don’t have the grades to automatically get into? Tell me why your grades are low.