Letters of recommendation are part of the American system. However, they are not, strictly speaking, either a student’s right or a professor’s obligation. They fall somewhere in between. Most professors are happy to write a few letters each year and feel obligated to do so. Students should be careful not to try to abuse the system by asking for a large number of letters. Students should weigh carefully the number they request, especially from the same teacher. Likewise, alumni should keep in touch for a few years if they hope busy former professors will spring into action on their behalf after they have left our Department.
Advice for students when requesting a letter:
1. Consider carefully your relationship with a member of the faculty before asking for a letter. Will your request put the professor in an uncomfortable position? Consider things like: Has the professor seen you do poorly in a course? Miss work? Miss class often?
2. Give the professor ample time (three-four weeks).
3. Ask; do not demand.
4. Give the following information in writing: Name of academic program or job title and person to whom the letter should be addressed. Also, give the professor your curriculum vitae, list courses taken from the professor in question, with date (semester), grade, and, perhaps, title of research paper or presentation.
5. If the application form allows you to opt out of the right to see the letter, do so. People who reserve the right to see their files at a later date give the impression (to the professor and to the committee reviewing the application) that they are potential trouble makers.
6. Give a stamped envelope with the address on it if the letter is to be mailed.
7. Send a thank-you note after the letter has been written.
8. Inform the professor if your application is successful.