Letters of Recommendation

English Course Listings
English Course Listings

At some point in your career as an English major, you will almost certainly have to ask a faculty member to serve as a reference or to write a letter of recommendation – for a job, a study abroad program, a university research grant, an outside fellowship, or graduate or professional school.

Please don’t hesitate to do so! Faculty members are happy to write letters of recommendation, and doing so is an expected part of the job of being a university professor.

You should, however, observe a few common courtesies when asking for letters of recommendation.

  • Get to know the professor from whom you would like a letter of recommendation. Ideally, you’ll already know him or her from seminar discussions and visits to office hours. Such familiarity makes it easier for you to ask for letters of recommendation – and also makes it easier for the professor to write them. He or she can talk about your intellectual growth over multiple quarters and discuss your performance over a range of assignments and in a variety of different contexts. If you don’t know the professor – for instance in a large lecture course – you should stop by his or her office hours to introduce yourself and talk about your plans. Professors in large lecture courses often write letters jointly with their TAs, but it’s best if both the professor and the TA know who you are;
  • Ask professors for letters of recommendation a MINIMUM of two weeks before the first letter is due, even if they have written on your behalf before. You cannot reasonably expect faculty members to drop all of their other obligations in order to meet your deadlines;
  • Once a professor has agreed to write on your behalf, send him or her the following:
    • a single set of instructions covering all of the letters you are requesting, including delivery instructions and due dates for each letter;
    • copies of all the papers you’ve written for that professor’s classes, complete with the professor’s comments if at all possible;
    • a penultimate draft of your application essay or statement of purpose;
    • an unofficial transcript;
    • an up-to-date resume.

Bear in mind that different kinds of situations require different kinds of letters. It’s fine for a first- or second-year student to ask a teaching assistant or a recent Ph.D. for a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program. Senior English majors applying to graduate or professional school, however, should request most of their letters from associate professors or professors, who can write persuasively on the basis of their many years of experience. Seniors should also ask for letters from faculty members who know them and their work well, ideally over multiple courses and quarters. Sometimes it even makes sense to delay applications to graduate and professional school until the year after graduation, so that professors can write about a more extensive body of coursework and testify to the excellence of senior theses and other final projects.