Letter of Recommendation Dos and Don'ts | Winward Academy


What Not To Do to Get a Good Letter of Recommendation

After teaching college classes and tutoring high school students over the past two decades, I have been asked to write and have written hundreds of letters of recommendation. What you are about to read is a real request for a letter of rec from a past college student.

“Hey, Jennifer. I took your class. I got an A-. I have a letter of recommendation due in two weeks.”

Another time I received a notification from a university that I’d been listed as someone writing a letter of recommendation for a student who never even asked for permission before providing my email.

What can you learn from the ill-thought requests above?

Yes, applying to colleges and universities – both for undergraduate and for graduate studies – is a marathon, not a sprint. There are tons of moving parts. Students have to keep lots of balls in the air. Pick your cliché. They’re all true.

And while the letters of recommendation aren’t as vital as GPA or standardized test scores, they do play a key role in helping admissions officers get an idea of your personality, persistence, and passion. In short, they’re really important.

Here are five dos and don’ts to keep in mind when it comes time to ask teachers, employers, and mentors for letters of recommendations.

Do find the right writer to ask:

First step: always ask someone to be a reference before giving out a name. Then, ensure the letter-writer believes in your abilities and knows what makes you unique. You definitely don’t want to be the one who says, “Hiya, I sit in the back of your class and never participate. Can you write me a letter of recommendation?” Do you think this teacher will respond positively?  Do you think I wrote a letter for the students I described above? Engage with teachers and study hard. Teachers are paying attention, and not everyone gets the same letter.

Don’t ask for a letter at the last minute:

Asking for a letter of recommendation is like asking for any other favor. Give someone enough notice and he or she will be more likely to not only say “yes” but also do a good job. But a last minute plea will not only annoy and alienate the writer, it will also lead to a substandard letter. Nobody wins. Rule of thumb: Give the writer at least a few months’ notice.

Do include a personal statement:

Ideally, the letter writer will know you well and have plenty of good things to say without much prompting. But it never hurts to give the writer a personal statement that includes your accomplishments and passions. It’s the details that make a letter stand out and illustrate the teacher’s relationship with the you. Providing more about yourself to the letter writer will only make the writer’s job easier – and hence yield a stronger letter of rec. And remember, your instructor will spend at least an hour composing the letter of recommendation; don’t you think you should spend the better part of that time framing your request in a respectful, appreciative, and helpful way.

Another point to be made: this is your request, not that of your parents. It is not appropriate that your parents write to demand a letter on your behalf. (No, I’m not making this up. I really get emails from parents asking for letters for their kids who are in my college classes.)

Don’t tell them what to say:

This one is a little tricky, because it seems to contradict the previous tip. Think of the personal statement as a way to give the writer a broad outline about who you are and what’s important to you. But avoid telling the writer exactly what to say; that’s just bad manners. And, most teachers are going to know how to pen an effective letter of recommendation. This isn’t their first rodeo.

Do say thank you.

Writing a thoughtful letter of recommendation takes a teacher hours.  And odds are you aren’t the only one asking. Each teacher writes dozens of recommendations, if not more. Be sure to let the writers know you appreciate the time and effort it took. You spent years building a strong relationship. Don’t risk ruining it by forgetting to say thanks. Be sure to handwrite a personalized thank you note.

After all these dos and don’ts, I want to provide you with a request for a recommendation sent to me that I found thoughtful, respectful, and professional. Make yours equally memorable.

Dear Dr. Winward,

As your Undergraduate Instructional Apprentice in Spring 2017 and your student in PSYC 116 for two quarters and in PSYC 101 for one quarter, I learned so much both as your student and as your UGIA. I loved building a rapport with students and helping them with their research papers.

I interviewed for 116 as a first-year and had no idea what the research world was like. I started at the <name> lab in 2015 and have been volunteering at different labs ever since. I truly appreciate the chance you took on me, and I have you to thank for starting me on this path. I am now hoping to get a full-time position with what I’ve learned along the way.

I was hoping to list you as a reference for a job position as a Research Assistant here at UCSD. I believe it includes a “reference survey” that you can complete online via a link that would be sent to you. Please let me know if you’re willing to do this.

I’ve attached my current resume as well as some more detailed information about the tasks I have experience with in case you need it.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration,

First Last

Looking for similar advice about putting together your resume? Check out Resume No No’s: 10 Tips for What Not to Do.


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About Winward Academy – Winward Academy is one of the world’s leading innovators in the online education space, providing web-based academic support that enhances students’ knowledge, confidence, and competitiveness in middle and high school academics and in college applications. We help thousands of students every year by providing personalized, comprehensive ACT and SAT test preparation and extensive math curriculum support. The Winward Academy learning platform honors over 40 years of education and cognitive psychology research, incorporating proven techniques that promote effective learning.

Winward Academy’s unmatched reputation is wholly attributable to our students’ exceptional success and to the trust earned among students, parents, and schools around the world.

Jennifer Winward, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Winward is a renowned college instructor, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her Ph.D. specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with highest distinction honors. Dr. Winward has been widely recognized for her academic success, published research, and philanthropic efforts with awards from the President of the United States, the California State Assembly, Rotary International, the Marin County School Administrator Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Science Foundation.

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