Letters of Recommendation

Guidelines for Requesting Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate schools, professional schools, and potential employers will ask for a letter of recommendation or a reference from someone in your academic program who can speak knowledgably about your abilities, skills, and personality. Often a great deal of emphasis is placed on these letters, so requesting letters of recommendation or reference is an important piece of your application. Below is a list of guidelines regarding letters of recommendation.

  1. The University requires a Request for Letter of Recommendation form from you before University personnel can provide a letter of recommendation or reference. This form authorizes the individuals to include information from your educational records in their recommendation or reference. Please see registrar.psu.edu/student_forms/request_for_recommendation_form.cfm . A completed copy must be presented to each University member from whom you are requesting a recommendation or reference, and you must submit a separate form for each letter (e.g., if you are asking Dr. Smith to write letters to 3 graduate programs, you must submit 3 forms to Dr. Smith).
  2. Ask someone who knows you well enough to say something specific about you. Admissions committees and employers are looking for particular information, such as how you deal with controversy, what your leadership abilities might be, or how well you handle criticism. Letters that are overly vague and indistinct give them little useful information and, therefore, do not set you apart from other applicants in a meaningful way. In some cases, a letter that is too vague or general looks as though the writer has nothing positive to say about you, and can potentially be worse than not having any letter at all.
  3. Ask someone in a position of authority. The Teaching Assistant may well be the person you saw every week for your lab session and may know you better than the instructor does, but they are not the best person to ask for a letter. Asking the TA is somewhat akin to asking another student to write a letter for you; it carries very little weight with admissions committees and can sometimes work against you. However, if you are taking a summer class from a graduate student who is the instructor of record for the class, then that person is an appropriate choice. Additionally, depending on what the letter of recommendation is for, your academic adviser may not be the best person to ask. Letters of recommendation from faculty carry more weight when you are applying to a graduate or professional program. Discuss with your academic adviser if a letter from him/her would be appropriate.
  4. Plan ahead. Many of your courses will be large (more than 80 students) and the odds are very good that you will need a letter at some point. Be actively involved in the classes you enjoy, particularly those in your major. Speak up in class, ask questions, and go to office hours, make a point of meeting them one on one if possible. Make an impression on your instructors. They will be much more likely to agree to write a letter for you if they recognize you from your participation. They also will have something positive to say about your enthusiasm, initiative, and leadership in class discussions. It is beneficial to keep in touch with faculty from whom you may want a recommendation. This way they remember you and they can more easily recall interactions with you. It is in your best interest to maintain polite and cordial relationships with faculty and advisers so that they are inclined to write an outstanding letter when the time comes. Also consider taking advantage of other opportunities to get to know an instructor. Do they offer volunteer opportunities in their research labs? Do they offer undergraduate teaching assistant opportunities?
  5. Come prepared. Once you decide to ask someone to write a letter for you, request a meeting to make the request. As a courtesy, remind them of what course(s) you took with them or other notable interactions. Let them know what you need and ask to make an appointment to talk about it. Bring them any information that may be helpful in writing the letter. This includes: evaluation forms from the institution to which you are applying, a resume/CV, your personal statement (if applicable), and any specific information about the letter itself (content needed, deadline, address and title of person to receive the letter). The best letters are often written for students who have made the process as simple and straightforward as possible, if only because these students have immediately demonstrated organizational and planning skills.
  6. Ask for your letter at least 2 weeks in advance of the deadline! This is a minimum time frame. Remember that there are several hundred students asking for letters of recommendation each semester. It is unlikely that your instructors will have time to drop everything to write a useful letter for you with only a day or two of notice, unless there is some critical extenuating circumstance involved.
  7. Reminders. Remember to send a (polite!) reminder a few days before the deadline. This is especially important during really hectic times, such as the end of spring semester. And remember to send a word of Thanks afterwards. If you are asking for a reference and will be giving out their phone number, it is a great courtesy to inform your reference if you know that your program/prospective employer may be calling.

Note: Typically letters of recommendation are confidential and are not read or seen by the student.