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The DOs and DON’Ts of Letters of Recommendation

In addition to transcripts, test scores, and research proposals, PhD and postdoc applications also require candidates to submit letters of recommendation. These letters offer insight into who your academic potential and could be the deciding factor in your admissions. To ensure you get strong letters of recommendation, follow these simple dos and don’ts.

DO Choose Your Letter Writers Carefully

PhD, postdoc, and fellowship applications typically require two to three letters of reference. These letters should come from professors who know your work and can speak to your potential in detail. That last part is important. Choose faculty members who know your personal characteristics, professionalism, achievements, and academic potential. The ideal letter writer is someone you have taken multiple classes with and who has given you positive evaluations. If you have worked closely with a professor on a major research project (such as a PhD or Masters thesis) they should also be one of your letter writers.

DON’T Use Someone as a Reference Without Contacting Them First

It’s bad form to give someone’s name as a reference without asking them for permission first. While professors expect to write letter of recommendation as part of their job, it also requires fair warning and a few hours of their time. Once you have decided which professors you would like to have give recommendations, ask them—during office hours or over email—if they feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation.

DO Ask Early

Ask this question four to six weeks before the application deadline. Professors are busy and writing a high-quality recommendation letter takes time. Don’t wait until the last minute if you want a good recommendation.

DON’T Be Offended if They Say No

If one of your professors declines to write you a letter, don’t get upset. The professor is doing you a favour by declining to write a letter. You want to have strong letters of recommendation, and for whatever reason this professor doesn’t feel they can write you one. Now you have the chance to improve your application with a better reference.

DO Give Them Information

To help your professors write strong letters, you need to provide them with background information about the program, grant, or job you’re applying for. You can ask your references what sort of information they would like, but it’s standard practice to give them a copy of your application materials as well as some background information like which classes you took with them, why you are interested in each program, and your research interests. Make sure to get them this material well in advance of the deadlines.

DON’T Keep Them in the Dark

In addition to background information, you should also clearly communicate the due date for each application so that your professors aren’t blindsided by a last minute request. If you can, let them know what format their letter should be submitted (hard copy, uploaded, emailed etc). If the letters must be mailed, it’s common courtesy to provide your references with an addressed and stamped envelope.

DO Send a Reminder

One week before the application is due, send your references an email reminding them to submit their letters if they have not already done so. There is often a lot going on around the end of the semester so you don’t have to worry that you’re “nagging” them. They will appreciate the reminder. If a professor misses a deadline, follow up in person and offer to pay for overnight postage if needed.

DON’T Forget to Say Thank You

Once all your applications are in, you should send a thank you note to each professor who wrote you a letter of recommendation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a handwritten note or an email as long as it gets the point across. You should also let your professors know the results of your applications. They will want to know if you were successful since they have contributed to your application.

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