Asking Faculty for Letters of Recommendation
This is a process that should begin early in your undergraduate career.
You will need to allow time to become well acquainted with faculty and to provide
them with the means to assess your work and your potential for graduate study.
Getting to Know Faculty
Your first step is to get to know faculty well enough to allow them to write
a specific, detailed letter of recommendation that speaks to your potential
for graduate study and discusses your work and area(s) of interest. If you
don't become well enough acquainted, you may not give the recommender an opportunity
to say much beyond 'Angela
Smith was a student in my Shakespeare class who demonstrated good writing skills,
participated actively, and
high grade.' This is not enough information to support a strong graduate
Take advantage of faculty office hours. All UW faculty are required to hold
weekly office hours, and they are happy to use this time to speak with you
about your plans for graduate study, to answer your questions about the process,
to recommend programs, and to discuss their own research. Office hours are
a good time for a more leisurely and in-depth conversation -- much better than
with professors directly before or after class. See the English
Department's people pages to find out where faculty offices are located,
and when each faculty member holds office hours.
Consider taking more than one course from a professor whose area of specialization
is a good match with your own graduate study aspirations. The ten week quarter
doesn't allow much time to get acquainted, and it's difficult for faculty to
assess your potential based on one or two assignments.
Strongly consider the English
Honors Program. Honors students establish particularly
close ties with faculty owing to the small size of the honors cohort and the
culminating thesis project, which is completed under individual faculty supervision.
Consider engaging in undergraduate research under the mentorship of a faculty
Request letters of recommendation from faculty members in English or in a
closely related discipline (comparative literature, American ethnic studies,
French literature, etc.), especially if this related discipline is also involved
in the lines of inquiry you plan to develop in graduate study. A letter from
will be very unlikely to speak to your strengths as a scholar in English studies
or your ability to do graduate-level work in English, and will thus not
be of much help to your application.
Letters from TAs are admissible if they are the ones who can speak most specifically
to your strengths and potential, but it's best, whenever possible, to get at
least one letter, and preferably two letters, from tenure-track faculty.
Letters from employers, colleagues, or friends are
of no value except in those very rare cases when what you plan to
study is extremely well aligned with the work you've been doing
(for example, if your proposal for graduate study concerns composition and
rhetoric, and you've been working in a writing center, a letter from the
center director could be of use). Even so, faculty letters will always carry
much more weight than letters from non faculty. Employers
colleagues may know you very well and be able to praise your strengths and
commitment, but they are almost never in a position to
make a knowledgable assessment of, or a persuasive case for, your potential
as a scholar in an English graduate program.
Establishing a Portfolio of Your Work
Keep all of the work you have done in English classes, especially from courses
taught by the faculty whom you're planning to ask for recommendations.
there is sometimes a lapse of time between when
you work with a faculty member and when you ask for a recommendation, it's
very helpful to both of you if you can show the professor the particular papers
you wrote in his or her class. This will help to "jog" the professor's
memory so that he or she can be specific about your work and your potential,
will help you to obtain a stronger letter of recommendation -- one that is
more detailed and speaks to your particular strengths and interests.
Keeping your work is also important because English graduate programs require
critical writing samples. This is typically a paper you wrote in an undergraduate
English course that is related to the area of graduate study you are intending
to pursue. Many undergraduate classes, at least at the UW, do not require critical
papers of sufficient page length to fulfill critical writing sample criteria
(which require, on average, at least 20 pages).
For this reason, you will want to look over your best
work and begin to
papers, possibly consulting with the faculty member for whom you wrote the
paper in the first place. It is not usual for an applicant to "cobble
or three shorter papers; this will weaken your application. Graduate admissions
committees need to see evidence that
a complex argument at length.
Making the Requests
There is no need to feel awkward about asking for a recommendation. Faculty
write thousands of these letters over the course of their careers and are very
accustomed to having these conversations. Be prepared to discuss your specific
plans and the schools to which you're applying when you ask for letters.
When making the request, give faculty as much notice as possible.
A month or two is ideal. It's also a good
application deadline. (People
are busy and deadlines can slip past them. Most faculty appreciate the reminder
and do not view it as "nagging.")
When you make your request, it is helpful --and will likely result in a better
letter -- if you can provide faculty with copies of work you completed in their
including their comments), a copy of your c.v.,
and a draft of your statement
of purpose. This way, faculty
will be able to speak in greater detail to your potential and preparedness
for specific programs and lines of study.
If you are applying to multiple graduate programs, most faculty prefer that
you use a credentialing service so that professors need to write only one
letter. The UW Career Center has such a service, called Letters
of Evaluation Online (or LEO), to which faculty can submit their letters
confidentially and from which you can request that packets of letters
be sent to the schools
to which you're applying. Interfolio is
a similar (non UW) service. These services keep your letters in a confidential
up to seven
that you have not seen, and to which you've signed a waiver of your
right to review. Confidential letters from faculty are perceived to be more
candid. Although you can certainly refuse to waive your rights, institutions
seriously when you have
If you are not using a credentialing service, sign the waiver forms included
in each program's application materials and provide your faculty
recommenders with these forms. It's nice to provide them with addressed, stamped
envelopes for each program as well.
Delays Between When You Graduate and When You Apply to Graduate School
Delays are common, and a delay of a year or so is often the best course of
action: your application will then reflect your grades in your entire senior
and you will be more likely to have stronger letters from faculty as well as
a more well developed critical writing sample. You will also have more time
to reflect, research, and develop a stronger application packet if you are
not trying to rush through it during the fall quarter of your senior year (most
graduate programs have deadlines in December and January for a program that
begins the following autumn).
If you are planning on a delay, it is a very good idea to ask for your letters
of recommendation before you graduate, while the details of your work are still
fresh in your professors' minds, asking faculty to direct them to a credentialing
above) to be kept on file until you're ready to apply. If the gap between
your undergraduate and graduate study has lasted just a few years, it's possible
to ask faculty
but it's not
If you have taken a longer break between completing your undergraduate work
and applying to graduate programs, securing letters can become more difficult.
If you already have letters on file with a credentialing service, do attempt
with faculty and ask for updated letters. If you do not have letters on file,
obtaining them after a long break can be especially challenging. You can first
attempt to reconnect with former professors, but this is not always possible
to retirements, relocations, and so forth. It's also possible that the professor
may remember you only vaguely, if at all. If a former professor
does agree to write for you, you will likely need to spend some time
discussing your work and your plans.
You should also bring your knowledge of
the English studies discipline up to date by
reading scholarly journals in your proposed area of study; applicants who
have taken a break of five years or more often sound "dated" in
their statements of purpose, especially those applying in fast-moving and fast-changing
areas, such as gender theory or cultural studies.
If it's not possible to secure letters from former professors, you'll want
to plan to take some additional upper-division English courses before you apply
to graduate school so that you can update your knowledge and establish new
relationships with faculty. In most cases, you can take these courses
matriculated status. Again, letters from employers or colleagues are of
little to no value to graduate admissions committees.