First Generation, Undergraduate Education

Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

This post is for all engineering students that have no idea how to request a letter of recommendation. Many engineering professors may have their own requests, but this is a summary of what I think is enough information to help your faculty highlight your skills, character, and abilities necessary for graduate school or internship.

For graduate school and internships, letters should provide a holistic view of all the characteristics you included in your personal statement that will make you a perfect candidate for your selected program.

Dr. Rivera

Step 1: Sending your first email

Sending the first email to request a letter of recommendation to your professor can be daunting but necessary to move your career to the next step. If you are considering requesting one, I personally prefer that my students send me their first email request at least 1 month before the first letter on their list is due. This allows me to consider all my other responsibilities and commit to it. Writing a strong letter of recommendation takes time and effort. Strong letters are typically packed with details about our formal and informal interactions and quotes/observations from your peer evaluations and class behaviors. Putting all that information together takes time. If you don’t meet the one month mark, you can always send an email closer to the due date in case your professor can still accommodate the letter request. Providing enough time for your professor is very important and shows your professionalism by considering other people’s time.

The following are things are I recommend to include in your first email request:

  1. Consider the tone for this email. Always be respectful and kind. Faculty are not required to write letters of recommendation to their students, but it is a great pleasure to do so if we can positively impact your career. The right tone is set when you can make a connection with your professor. In my case, I only consider writing a letter of recommendation to students that have completed at least one course with me or whom I have known for more than one semester.
  2. Describe who are you and how do I know you. Introduce yourself and tell me how and for how long we have know each other. This should include the course, semester, or any other relevant context in which we know each other such as student organizations, summer internship, research, mentoring relation, etc. Once I have this context, my memory magically takes me back to the moment I met you. It is weird, I know.
  3. Clearly indicate what are you requesting. This is where you go straight to the point and ask me what you want from me. Make sure to clearly describe the purpose of the letter (e.g., grad school, summer internship, scholarship, award, etc.) and the context (e.g., soft materials applications). Example: “I’m planning on applying to multiple Ph.D. programs this fall in Chemical Engineering and Material Science to pursue my interest in Renewable Energy R&D, and I want to know if you would be able to write a letter of recommendation for me.
  4. Describe why my letter would be important for your career goals. This will give me some context to know if my letter can really help you. Sometimes students ask me for a letter without understanding how important they are. For graduate school and internships, letters should provide a holistic view of all the characteristics you included in your personal statement that will make you a perfect candidate for your selected program. This is not a simple check box in your application. Each letter your professors write helps the selection committee form a picture of your skills, character, abilities, and the potential to succeed in their program. Not everyone that knows you can write a strong letter of support. If I am not the right person, I will be honest and tell you. Example: “My senior design project comparing the two different processes for the production of molecule X is a major reason why I want to pursue research in the energy sector, and I learned many important skills in your classes, including chemical process modeling and optimization. These skill sets are also important in the research environment, and a letter of recommendation from you would make me a stronger candidate for graduate school and highlight how the critical thinking process involved in chemical modeling is directly applicable to research.” 
  5. Be clear about my time commitmentIndicate how many schools you are applying to and their due dates. Writing a good letter of recommendation takes time. Writing multiple letters of recommendation requires that I customize each letter and then enter it into multiple online systems that are not standardized. Believe me, it takes a lot of time. My advice is to create a table with the schools and due dates. Take into consideration that some faculty will not be comfortable writing a gazillion letters. I personally feel overworked when I need to submit more than 10 letters. If you are going over 10 letters, it would be kind of you to consider your professor’s time and ask them if they feel comfortable with more. Once again, be respectful and kind.
  6. What to do if you are requesting a letter to other professors? Ask your professors if they need special information from you in the last sentences of this first email. Below you will see my list, but other professors may have different requests. If they don’t ask for anything, I recommend to include some of the things I suggest below in your follow up email (that second email saying thank you for accepting to write you a letter). I am sure it will look super professional, and they will be impressed with the level of commitment to your future education.
  7. What is next? After you send this first email, wait for your professor’s reply. If one week pass by, feel confident of sending a friendly reminder. In my case, I receive a lot of emails every day and sometimes emails that are external to my university are sent to my spam folder. You can be very explicit and say this is a friendly reminder. Avoid sending emails every day. I may not speak for all the engineering professors in the world, but most of us will write the letter if we commit to doing it. Once again, be respectful and kind.

STEP 2: Help me to help you

The more personal a letter of recommendation is, the better. This step is all about collecting evidence to highlight your skills, character, and abilities necessary for the letter’s purpose. After I respond to your email accepting to write you a letter, the next step will be to help me to help you by sending me an email with the following:

  1. Send your personal statement. This will help me to understand how will you fit within the graduate program’s focus and goals. I recommend you to check out MIT’s Communication Lab resources on Graduate School Personal Statement. Take your personal statement seriously and be very honest. Make sure that different people (e.g., faculty, graduate students) check your personal statement. As a non-native English speaker, I try to review my official documents at least 10 times. Yes, you heard it correctly, more than 10 times. Even after that, I can still find errors or ways to explain things better.
  2. Send your resume. This will allow me to link your extracurricular activities with the abilities and behaviors I saw in class. Due to FERPA, I never indicate your GPA, but I comment on how you handled my classes while doing all your extracurricular activities.
  3. Send the submission details. A table/list with the schools, program you are applying to, and due dates for each school letter. I will use this list later to find the links sent by these schools. I literally print this list and put in on my paper agenda. For me, missing a letter of recommendation due date is one of the worst feelings ever!
  4. Provide answers to the following questions. Copy-paste the following questions into a Word document. The answers to these questions should be rich in details and examples. Help me to highlight your skills, character, and abilities. Engineering professors have many students every semester. This simple step can help us to remember and fill the gaps in our interactions. Understand that you are allowing your professor to use information in your letter by sending a response to these questions.
    • Which pronouns do you use? Learn more about why this matters https://www.mypronouns.org/
    • How your college experiences (academic, extracurricular, leadership, research, etc.) make you the right candidate for this program?
    • What are your plans (or envision yourself) once you obtain this new degree?
    • What classes and semester did I teach you? Make sure to indicate the semester including the year. Were you my grader or researcher assistant? Make sure to indicate the semester including the year. Explain your role.
    • If it applies, were you part of a team in my course? Which team/project? Describe a big take away from that experience you will use in the program you are applying to.
    • Do you remember any advice, mentoring, or class topic that you learned in my class that was impactful? How did you use it or plan to use this teaching moment in the future?

STEP 3: Send only friendly reminders

Now, you wait. If we committed to writing you a letter of recommendation, we will. You are welcome to send friendly reminders, but to be honest, there is a high chance that your professor will be submitting the letter the night before or the same morning the letter is due. So as Yoda would say: “Patience you must have, my young padawan.”

Step 4: Keep us posted

Some students feel the need to send us some appreciation gift after we submit their letters. However, sending us a gift puts us in an ethically difficult position, especially if we work for the government (e.g., state school). Even if we would love to eat your brownies and cookies, we cannot accept anything that can potentially be considered a bribe or remuneration for writing the letter (we even get human resources training for this). So please, don’t send us a gift, to avoid feeling bad rejecting it.

If you still have the need to do something, what your professor would value the most is to know how you are doing in your career. So I hope you consider writing back to keep them posted. A simple note or email should suffice. I have a board in my office filled will all of my students’ cards and emails that I look at when I am feeling blue. Believe me, your engineering professors truly wish you the best!

Final Thoughts

  • If you have any feedback, find any typos, or have a comment, please let me know. I strive to be better. Thank you to all of you that have done so.
  • If you are a faculty, feel free to use this content for your classes or mentees. After I commit to writing a letter, I reply by sharing this link and telling students to do STEP 2. You can feel free to use my post, or customize it to your need. I just want to help.
  • If you are a student:

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