Retro Post #2: Securing Letters of Recommendation

This post originally appeared on September 28, 2010 at The Grad Cafe. It deals with how to go about deciding who you want to write letters for you and asking professors for letters of recommendation.


I’m going to try to document the path I have taken during this application season as completely as I possibly can, in order to provide future applicants with as much information good, bad, and ugly as possible to support their own journeys towards the PhD. Here, I’m discussing the all-important issue of letters of recommendation.

I notice on the discussion board that a lot of people are asking whether or not you need three academic letters of recommendation, or if it would be a good idea to submit one from a current employer or coworker if you are already working in the field in which you wish to enter post-degree. I debated this issue myself, since I have been teaching advanced high school/lower college level courses for over a decade. Ultimately, I determined in my last go-round that it would be in my best interests to have one letter that documented specifically my abilities as a teacher. Apparently, it was not, since I did not receive an offer of admission. So my recommendation is, stick with the academic/professor letters of recommendation, or at least do so if you are going into the humanities.

I therefore switched out the third letter writer in my file with one of my other graduate professors. I contacted all three of the professors I wanted to have write me recommendations (two who worked with me on my MA thesis, and this third one, with whom I took a course) last spring once my application results were in to ascertain whether or not they would be willing to write (and in the cases of the first two, to re-write) letters of recommendation. I was very specific with them in terms of what I needed if they were willing to do this – not the same letter that was sent last year, but a new one – and let them know what my timeline at that point was in terms of applying, so they had plenty of notice. Here are the emails I sent, for reference purposes (feel free to borrow or to cut and paste as needed, if you want to use this or a similar template for your own LOR requests).

Email the First (To my original letter writers, sent in May following results; reasons for each statement listed numerically following email. The numbers were not present in the email, itself.):

Dr. Professor,

1. Let me begin by thanking you for writing a letter of recommendation in support of my application to doctoral programs in English. It means a lot to me to have the confidence of scholars I really admire backing me up in this step towards achieving my dreams.

2. This year was an extremely competitive year thanks in large part to the economy, as several of the programs to which I applied made certain to let me know. In several cases, applications numbered in the five- to seven- hundred range, for the handful of slots available in any given English program. Ultimately, I was rejected at four of the five programs to which I applied, with funding issues and my undergraduate GPA cited as the primary reasons for refusal of admission. I was accepted at xxxx program, but without funding. In this case, I was offered the chance to defer for a year and attempt to seek funding next year, but also encouraged to seek a position with funding elsewhere.

3. To that end, I intend to apply next season again to xxx, and also to xxxx, both of which are within driving range of my home and therefore both of which would be the most acceptable financial alternatives to xxx in the event that funding does not come through. Over the next several months, to further strengthen my application, I will be retaking the GRE general exam and also will be taking the GRE subject test. I have a number of small publications slated to appear over the next six months in various encyclopedic tomes, and am also working on a few other research projects, including the revision of my thesis for publication. I am presenting at the International Medieval Congress this May, and plan also to give a paper at the Southeastern Medieval Association in the fall.

4. I would like to ask you if you would be willing to substantially revise or to rewrite your letter of recommendation for me during the next round of applications, which I intend to send out in late November. For my part, I will furnish you with an updated CV and copies of any publications that come out between now and that point.

5. I am a little deflated by the results of this application season – but by no means am I defeated. I am certain that I have what it takes to do this, and I am confident that if I am persistent and continue to work hard and with the same degree of passion, I can achieve this goal.

Thank you for your support

1. Be polite – thank people who are trying to help you!!

2. Summary of the results – they wrote me letters, they deserve to know the outcome.

3. My plan of action in the face of such results, AKA I’m not resting on my laurels.

4. specific request being made – don’t beat around the bush. If you want a new letter, you have to state that; otherwise, many profs will just re-send the one they already wrote.

5. demonstrating seriousness of intent, purposeful attitude, and a helluva lot more confidence than I actually feel…!


Hi, xxxx. Sorry you didn’t get into any of the places you wanted to go. I’d be happy to rewrite my letter for you–just let me know when and what you need me to do.

Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help. And if you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and chat.


Response 2:

Of course I’ll write you another letter. Send me the statement of purpose you are sending next time and I’ll look over it for you.

Email the Second (To the new potential letter-writer; reasons for each statement listed numerically following email):

“Dr. Professor,

1. First and foremost – congratulations on your book! I’m so excited for you. I remember when it was still in galleys… !)

2. I took your class in Gothic literature in the summer of 2007; we also met briefly in person at the xxxx conference held by Drs. y and z. My final paper for your course dealt with Broadway’s (mis)appropriation of Gothic literature in an attempt to develop a Gothic subgenre of musical theatre in order to attract younger contemporary audiences, and I created a final project web blog on Jane Eyre, if that helps to jog your memory.

3. I graduated from xxxx in 2009 with a 4.0, and am now working on pursuing my doctorate, focusing in Medieval Literature, but with a sub-specialty in nineteenth-century English literature (Gothic/Romantic medievalism).

4. I applied to several programs this year, but was only accepted into one of them, and that without funding – so I’m working on firming up my application in order to apply again next year, in hopes of a better outcome. To that end, I am revising several of my papers for publication, continuing to present at conferences, taking the GRE subject test (which I avoided last round), and seeking a third academic recommendation; unfortunately, while I was at xxxxxx I only studied under four professors, one of whom is more closely aligned with education than with English.

5. I am hoping that despite the fact that I only took one course with you, since the material we covered in that course most closely aligns with my secondary research interests, you would be willing to furnish me with that third letter of recommendation? I wouldn’t need it until next fall, and would be very happy to supply you with my current CV and copies of my work in your class for reference at that time.”

1. If you know of a recent accomplishment, why not take the chance to congratulate and let the professor know you have kept abreast of his/her work?

2. Jogging both professional and personal recollections and pleasant interpersonal discussions; specifics about the class(es) taken with the professor, reminding her of collegiality of our interaction.

3. Where I have been and where I am going, as succinctly as possible.

4. The up-front disclosure that I’m a “risk” because of my status as a re-applying candidate, and what I am doing to improve my application from last year to this – shows determination and personal effort.

5. The request, giving her a wide margin of time to work in and also a polite easy out from writing it if she is uncomfortable with it, having only taught one class.

Her response:

“Yes, I’d be more than happy to write a recommendation for you–especially if it isn’t pressing. Please send your vita, the programs to which you are applying (plus ones that you did apply for), and send me another email updating me with any other info that would be helpful for the letter. Unfortunately, since I’m not at xxxx anymore, I can’t access the class online, and I don’t have a copy of your paper, etc, though I remember the main argument. If you could send me another copy of the paper, that would be good too. Friendly reminders will help. I should have it to you by the end of the semester.”
Score! It helps, of course, that this is an incredibly kind and supportive woman who understands what it’s like to be an academic mother.

Here is the letter I just sent this morning, reminding them and giving them plenty of advance time to write the letters:

Dr. Professor,

Good morning! Thank you again for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for me. I am very serious about completing this degree, and I deeply appreciate your support.

At present, I am studying for the GRE subject test, which I will be taking in November, and revising the writing samples I intend to submit.

I still plan to make application in November, as at least one of my deadlines is December 1. I am applying to the programs at x, y and z. I applied last year to x and y, but this is my first application to z. My understanding from the admissions folks at both x and y was that my statement of purpose was not compelling enough, and my recommendations not specific enough, to recommend me for admission over my low undergraduate GPA. I have therefore revised my statement of purpose, and am sending this and my most recent CV to you as aids in writing the letter.

If my scores on the general GRE exam would be of use to you, I will be happy to provide them; also, I have copies of many of the writings I did for your class, if you would like to see such to refresh your memory in terms of my work.

My understanding is that when I begin the applications (all three are online) there will be an automated request for recommendation emailed to you, and that you can just cut and paste or upload an existing document at that point, so I thought it would be best to send the information to support the recommendation letter with plenty of advance, rather than at the last minute, to give you a chance to work on it when you have the time.

Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to facilitate the letter-writing (or if my Statement of Purpose is absolutely dreadful and needs total revision).

All best

And, a response:

I’ll get to work on it this weekend. Thanks for the heads up, It’s helpful to have people who ask for letters of recommendation stay on top of things and give such advance warning. I appreciate the consideration.

I will now leave the professors alone. Being on top of things is one thing; constantly hounding them is another, entirely. At this point, my next contact with them will be to answer any emails they send requesting further information or clarification, and sending them the recommendation letter links from the applications. Once I receive notice that they have uploaded their applications, I will then send a follow up email thanking them for their help, and then another following next April’s results.

To sum up:

1. Be polite — take the time to let them know their work is important to you

2. Be professional — let the know what you are doing to facilitate your own success

3. Be prompt with any materials they request from you in order to write the letter

4. Give them plenty of time and a reminder toward the deadline if they haven’t yet submitted a letter, but don’t hound them

5. Remember to thank them and let them know your results

I’m really lucky and grateful to have professors who believe in my work enough to go the extra mile for me. I hope this entry is helpful to those of you trying to decide what to do in terms of letters of recommendation, and how to go about getting them.



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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1 Response to Retro Post #2: Securing Letters of Recommendation

  1. Pingback: Do I meet the Requirements (AuD back up plan) |

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