Asking for a Letter: PhD Level

Recommendation Letters

Asking for a Letter: PhD Level

Start in September of the year you are applying, or earlier. It is never too early to ask for a letter, and the advance notice will be appreciated. This is especially valid if your involvement with this person has ended, as when you are finishing an internship.

First, ask in person, “will you be able to write me a strong letter?” Emphasize the word “strong,” as that is what you want. You may rather have no letter and look for another one, than to have a weak, lukewarm letter.

Once the person agrees to write you a letter, do as much of the work for them as you can. Make a package of all relevant documents for them, and give it to them soon after your first ask. Here are a few things to write:

  • A few brief good things about yourself that you would like the writer to know. For example, your internship supervisor may like that you are also a leader in school. Keep this short and relevant. This is especially important for writers with whom you have no continuous contact, such as a past supervisor. You can remind them of anecdotes in your interaction that paint you favorably.
  • Tell them what you would like them to emphasize about you. You can even write whole paragraphs.
  • Include all deadlines and directions, especially if there are online systems involved.
  • You do not have to be too shy with professors. Writing letters, and helping their students succeed is part of their job. As my adviser told me, it is much easier to bug him than to annoy him. He was asking for more assertive reminders about writing the letter on time, as he was writing 75 letters for his students that season.