Recently a former colleague (and friend) asked if I could write her a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Of course, I was happy to do it. But then she told me that she needed the letter in 5 days. My excitement turned to anxiety and slight annoyance. I wanted to write her a glowing recommendation letter since she deserved one — after all she was an excellent colleague (and during our time together she was always professional and on top of everything… and with the greatest detail). But I couldn’t help wonder why did she wait to the last minute (and yes, for a person writing you a recommendation letter, a week … even two weeks… is considered last minute). You should always assume that the person writing you a reference letter has other “more” pressing and time sensitive items to complete. I would love to drop everything I was doing but unfortunately, my job(s) do not allow me that luxury. I say this all the time but people don’t listen, so I am going to say it again (and probably again in a future post)… Give your Recommenders ample time to write you a glowing letter of recommendation [or you may not get the “seal the deal” one that she/he would have written for you].
Also, yes, even Admissions experts like us, wouldn’t mind receiving a bit of help (especially if you are only giving me a few days to write it). A few bullet points and/or suggestions on what you would like us to cover in the letter goes a long way. We have an idea of what a recommendation letter should contain but getting a sense of what you have done (i.e. your achievements and successes) since our last interaction, point out your strengths, and definitely share with us your goals and what you hope to achieve by going to graduate school… is ALWAYS helpful. I can think of a number of experiences that I think make my friend a strong candidate but they may not be the same as the ones she had in mind so you may want to share with (remind) your Recommender some specific examples from the time you worked together that will highlight your attributes and strengths. Keep in mind, a strong recommendation should be able to provide the Admissions Committee another layer and insight to your personal and professional values that hopefully will tie together the rest of your application.
One other thing, which thankfully my friend warned me ahead of time (so the email did not end up in my Junk folder), you should inform your Recommender when and how the request will come for the letter. You should also provide them with some insight as to whether it will be prompted questions or she/he will be expected to write an unsolicited letter . This will allow them to plan how much effort and time is needed to write the letter (unfortunately for me, I have no time).
These are just a few tips to provide your Recommender — It’s still early in the season but it never hurts to keep these in the back of your mind as you think about who you would like to write your letter of recommendations. Before you know it, deadlines will be here. With that… I am off to write my “glowing” letter of recommendation (with a little grumble).