Emails & recommendation letters

This page offers advice on two main topics: (1) General email etiquette, with a focus on higher education, and (2) Requesting letters of recommendation (“rec letters”) from your professors.

General email etiquette for grad school

As someone who receives a lot of emails from students, I’m on the receiving end of all kinds of confusing, and occasionally rude-seeming, email behavior. Almost all of this behavior is unintentional on the part of students, but it still can be frustrating.

As an example, here’s a completely made up email that combines many of the unhelpful behaviors I’m alluding to:

From: some.student@csulb.edu

To: Omar.Hussein@csulb.edu

Subject: Hi

I am having such a hard time with this assignment. My professor keeps telling me to get help from the writing center because I have problems with my writing. I never really felt confident in my writing and now I’m worried I’m going to fail this class. I need help with my 20 page paper. It’s a big part of my grade. I looked on your calendar and I didn’t see any openings. As a courtesy, I’ll tell you that I’m only available for appointments on Wednesdays.

S. Student.

Obviously, this imaginary example is a bit exaggerated. But trust me: I’ve received emails that were almost this bad.

Now, let’s discuss why this email is bad and how to make it better.

You should always:

–Use short, clear, and descriptive subject lines. Notice the subject line above: “Hi” doesn’t tell me anything about what you need. If I receive 20-40 emails in a day (which I often do), a subject line of “Hi” is not going to be a top priority for me to open and respond promptly to. An example of a good subject line might be “Question about appointment” or “Request for meeting.” If you’re emailing a professor, make sure to include the course name + number. For example, “Question about term paper – ANTHRO 540” (your professors’ syllabi will often give instructions on how to email them).

–Keep your paragraphs short. When emails are concerned, nobody wants to read big blocks of text. I recommend limiting each paragraph in an email to 2-3 sentences in length. If you have to write longer paragraphs, you’re probably explaining more than you need to. Get to the point as soon and as simply as possible. It’s an email, not a dissertation.

–Be specific. Notice that the email above never tells me what course, program, or discipline the student is in, what type of paper they’re working on (e.g. a lit review), when it’s due, or how soon they need help. They also tell me that they’re available to meet on Wednesdays, but not what times they’re available (e.g. “Wednesdays after 11am” or “Wednesdays from noon to 5pm”). In any kind of writing, it’s important to anticipate your reader’s needs (see my page on Audience for more on this topic). What does your recipient need to know in order to help you or answer your question?

–Clearly and directly state questions and requests. Notice that the email above never clearly asks me for anything. What exactly does this student want me to do? When I write emails to ask for something, I usually place my question on a separate line, put it in boldface, and clearly label it as a question, like this:

So, my question is: Could you meet via Zoom next Monday, Nov 10th, sometime between 11am and 3pm?”

–Make sure to use proper greetings and sign-offs, and make sure to thank the recipient for their time (“thank yous” go a long way in terms of making the recipient happy to help you!). “Hi Omar” or “Hello Dr. So-and-so,” are perfectly acceptable in American culture. But don’t just start with “Hi” (without a name) or “Hey” (generally too informal), or nothing at all, as in the example above. For a sign off, “Thank you” is perfectly fine. Even better would be “Thank you for your time” as your final line, followed by “Best regards” or “Sincerely” before writing your name. Politeness never hurts and almost always helps.

–Be careful with word choice. Notice that in the email above, the student writes, “As a courtesy, I’ll tell you….”  The student probably meant that they were including this information for the reader’s convenience. But the reader could misinterpret it as meaning “as a special courtesy, I’m sending this, but I certainly shouldn’t have to.” Etiquette is difficult, and cultural and language differences make it more so. One way to avoid possible misunderstandings, especially if English is not your primary language, is to keep your statements as short and simple as possible. For example, “I am available on Wednesdays…” (leave the “courtesy” or “convenience” out altogether).   

Now, here’s an improved re-write of the email above:

From: some.student@csulb.edu

To: Omar.Hussein@csulb.edu

Subject: Request for appointment

Hi Omar,

My name is Some Student, and I’m a second year student in the MA program in Underwater Basket Weaving. I have a 20 page literature review on the history of basket weaving that is due on June 20th for my Research Methods class. I don’t really know what I’m doing and I could use some advice.

So, my question is: Would it be possible to meet with you before June 15th?

I am available on Mondays between 11am and 4pm, and on Thursdays anytime before 5:30pm.

Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

S. Student

Further reading on emailing professors and other academic professionals

PBS Education: Don’t email like you text, and other useful tips for writing to a professor

That page also cites the following useful pages:

Michael Leddy, Eastern Illinois University: How to email a professor

Inside Higher Ed: Re: your recent email to your professor (has some helpful sentence examples and stems)

Dr. Amy B. Hollingsworth: Five Ways to Get a Busy Professor to Answer Your Emails, That Don’t Involve a Bribe

UC Santa Cruz: How to email a research professor  (has some great templates)

Dr. Laura Portwood-Stacer: How to email your professor (without being annoying AF)

Karen Kelsky, The Professor is In: How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

Requesting letters of recommendation

Who to ask

Most graduate programs (PhDs, MA/MS, and professional programs) require 2-3 letters of recommendation as part of the application. The first thing to know about letters of recommendation is that a good one says very nice things about you. The recommender should say that you’re an excellent student with great potential, and that they have no doubt that you’ll be very successful in the future (or something along those lines).

Almost no letter writer would be so sadistic as to write a BAD letter that says you’re terrible and awful, and that the university would be better off taking a mangy dog off the street rather than letting you anywhere near their hallowed halls (if they really felt that way, your professors would likely just refuse to write you the letter at all). So, a bad letter is simply one that says you’re adequate: “Jane Doe took my class. She completed all of her assignments and did what was required.” That’s academic code for: “This student was completely unremarkable, and I barely even remember her.”

All of that is to say: To get good rec letters, you need to build relationships with your professors. Get to know them, build a friendly rapport with them, ask them questions, and let them know, long in advance, that you’re planning to apply to a PhD or MA program and that you’d love to get their advice and support. Some ways to do that are attend office hours, get involved in department events (like guest lectures, conferences, and special talks), and (if possible/relevant to your field) get involved in research. A principal investigator (PI) or research advisor can make an excellent recommender.

But what if you’ve been out of school for many years, or you simply haven’t made good connections with your professors?

First, start making such connections right now. If you’re applying to grad school after several years, it might be a good idea to take a relevant course as a “refresher” and/or to boost your application. Many people take courses at community college or through a 4-year university’s “open enrollment” or “open university” programs. The instructors for such classes can make good letter writers.

Second, if you already work in the field in which you are intending to do grad study (or a closely related field), your professional contacts (including your boss/supervisor) can make good recommenders. You can make further professional contacts by attending professional networking functions (e.g. conferences) and getting involved in professional organizations.

Third, if you were a good student, your professors might still remember you many years later. It never hurts to reach out to them to ask for a recommendation (the worst that could happen is that they’ll say “no”), which leads to my next topic.

Finally, reach out to the school you’re applying to and ask an appropriate “graduate admissions advisor” (or whoever is the point person for your intended department’s admissions-related questions) for advice on what to do. For example, they can let you know whether their department is OK with “professional recommenders,” such as your boss/supervisor.

How to make the ask

Here are several important tips in no particular order:

–Give letter writers enough time. Generally speaking, 2 months before the deadline should be the bare minimum. Does it take 2 months to write a single letter? No, but professors are often insanely busy. If you don’t respect their time, you can’t expect them to write a good letter.

–Remind the letter writer who you are and send them materials to help jog their memory. These materials should include a draft (at least a rough one) of your statement of purpose for the program(s) you’re applying to, a copy of your CV, and a writing sample of some sort. Most grad programs require some kind of writing sample, so you can send that. Or you might send the A+ final paper or other key assignment that you completed for the professor’s class (to remind them of who you are and what your strengths are).

–Give them an “out.” Ask them if they’d be “able,” or “willing” (or even “willing and able”!), “to write you a strong letter of recommendation.” That way, if they are unwilling for any reason, you have given them a gracious way of declining (“Sorry, I’m not able to at this time,”). Think about it this way: if the professor feels pressured to write you a letter, the resulting letter will probably not be good.

–Thank them in advance for their time and efforts. See my earlier comments in the “Etiquette” section about thank yous. On that point, follow all of the etiquette tips discussed above.

–If they say yes, and write you the letter, don’t forget to follow up with them and thank them profusely.

The sample below is based on a draft of a successful rec letter request that I sent to one of my professors when I was applying to an MA program (with details changed, of course):

Dear Dr. Spock,

How are you? I hope that all is well, and that you’re having a wonderful semester.

I’m writing to tell you that I’m applying to the MA in Teletransporter Physics at Vulcan University for the upcoming June 1st deadline, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing and able to write me a strong letter of recommendation.

For reference, I’m attaching drafts of my CV, statement of purpose, and writing sample (the latter is actually a lightly revised draft of my final paper for your Theory of Hyperspace class, PHYS 562, that I took in fall 2011, so that can also serve to jog your memory about me as a student).

And of course, if you’re able to write the recommendation, I’ll gladly send anything else that you might need to make the process easier—just let me know. I’d also be glad to talk on the phone or Zoom, if you’d prefer.

Thank you in advance for your time and efforts. I look forward to hearing from you, and I will be truly appreciative if you’re able to recommend me.

Thanks, as always, for everything, and best regards!

Omar Hussein

Further reading on requesting letters of rec:

Northeastern: How to request a grad school recommendation letter

Stanford: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Inside Higher Ed: Obtaining Outstanding Recommendations (this one is more for junior faculty/PhD students, but still potentially useful)

The professor’s perspective:

It never hurts for students to understand what professors are being asked to do.

The Professor is In (Karen Kelsky): How to Write a Recommendation Letter

Inside Higher Ed: No, Professors Aren’t Charging for Letters of Recommendation

Some miscellaneous posts/discussion board items on what to do if you don’t know who to ask for rec letters:

I’m not endorsing everything that is said on these pages (far from it!). But there are some helpful ideas to consider, e.g. tips about people you can ask for letters.

Reddit: Can’t get recommendation letters

Quora: Am I screwed out of grad school if I can’t find anyone to write letters of recommendation?

ThoughtCo: NonTraditional Applicants to Grad School: 3 Tips for Getting Recommendations

Academia Stack Exchange: If I cannot get sufficient recommendation letters, what can I do?

Academia Stack Exchange: How can I get a reference letter if I was never “close” to any professors?

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