How to Ask for a Letter of Reference
So - you are approaching graduation, or have been graduated for a while, and you need to ask me for a letter of reference. Before asking me for a letter, please read through my longer, and somewhat more rambling, thoughts on the subject (linked). But, when it comes down to asking, be sure to follow my advice below pretty closely. Go through it as if through a checklist.
Letters of reference are business, not socialization. I appreciate that students feel embarrassed asking for a letter and want to mix a great deal of friendly chit-chat to cover up your embarrassment of making this request. I know, because I am exactly the same when I ask for a letter! But, the most important thing is to make a request in such a way that I know (despite my busy schedule) exactly what I need to do, when I need to do it, and how urgent it is.
Please follow the system below:
A). Send me an initial e-mail, reminding me who you are, how we know each other, and asking if I am willing to write you a letter. I will usually say yes, but this may be qualified (if you didn't get top marks with me, I may answer that I will do my best, but that I won't be able to write that you are one of my top 5%). This initial e-mail may be a bit vague. I may ask you for more information.
B. Once you know excactly where you are goiing to apply, send me a second EXTREMELY CLEAR e-mail
This e-mail should include the following:
1. A subject heading: Request for Letters of Reference.
then, for EACH position applied for
2. A concise description of the nature of the position.
3. A description perhaps of what you would like me to emphasise.
4. A clear description of how the letter is to be submitted (by e-mail on my own steam? by post? via a letter sent in advance to the applicant? via a link sent to me by the institution after you have applied?)
5. A clear description of the form demanded (on letterhead? on a form provided by the insitution? signed or not signed?)
6. A clea specification of the date of your application.
7. A clear description of how urgent it is that the letter arrive on time. IN some cases, it might be a good idea for my letter to arrive a few days after the deadline for applications. In others, if I do not get the material in before a certain date, the application itself will be rejected. I NEED TO KNOW THIS and because I am busy YOU NEED TO TELL ME THIS AND TELL ME THIS EXTREMELY CLEARLY.
C) Having sent me that letter, send me reminder e-mails before the deadlines. One reminder e-mail might go out a week before the deadline. If it is an urgent deadline, send me an e-mail with the subject heading URGENT: LETTER OF REFERENCE MUST BE IN BY NOVEMBER 21 or something of that sort. You may want to follow up - for instance, if it is slightly less urgent: "i sent in my application a week ago, and they say that they haven't received your letter. Is everything okay?"
You feel guilty and a bit rude for sending such letters - but you shouldn't feel that way, because I want you to send such letters! I also want you to ge the position.
C) Once you have received the position, please let me know. No thank you gifts though, please. If you are the sort of person who likes to send thank you cards, that is always appreciated, but not required (an e-mail is good enough).