Surya Jones

Recommendation Letters in the Age of Technology

Dear Faculty,

Surya Jones, a guest blogger for The Wheel, wrote this piece. Surya graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in International Relations with minors in Anthropology and French. Her interests fall at the intersections of technology, race, and ontology. Come Fall 2020, Surya will begin an MSc in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She will continue her studies in 2021 at Columbia University completing an M.A. in Global Thought.

One of the major attributes of UC Davis is the accessibility of its faculty to students. Students are able to connect with faculty through Canvas, email, office hours or, before and after worldwide pandemics, passing through the CoHo. As a result, we can build relationships with faculty that support strong letters of recommendation. In the following article, I outline some tips and tricks that faculty can add to their repertoire of resources to provide students seeking letters of recommendation. 

Within the past six months, I have graduated from UC Davis and applied to four highly competitive graduate programs while securing the required number of recommendations and then some for each university. I have found the combination of timeliness, proper preparation, regular email correspondence, and a reliable document organization system to be indispensable. In the following article, I lay out how I leveraged email for optimal use and organized the information required for both my professors and myself. 

Letter writing and letter asking are equally difficult endeavors, each for their own reasons. The former is highly dependent on the amount of time and information that has been given to the recommender by their student. The latter depends upon knowing who to ask, how to ask, and what information to provide for the best result. Students must balance offering enough information and giving their professors enough time to complete a complimentary recommendation letter while also providing professors space to actually complete the task. And that’s assuming the student is, well, still a student.

What about those who have graduated, but later decide to further pursue their education? How can students and professors work together to ensure that the best possible letter is written when the student has already moved on? It can be difficult to reach back to professors whose class affected your choice in graduate school or career path but with whom you only met towards the end of your undergraduate career. Furthermore, as not every professor will ask for the same information, students can take steps to cut down on time spent assembling information to ensure the information provided is sufficient and organized. With a little help from technology, the process of requesting a recommendation from afar, providing the right information for a thorough recommendation, maintaining a good rapport with former professors, and thanking them for their time becomes seamless and organized.  

A Case for Email

While we have heard horror stories about students requesting a recommendation letter from professors via email the day they are due, I have found email integral to keeping my graduate school application process on schedule. From the initial ask to the moment I input each professor’s information in the application to, finally, a well due thank you to each professor for their time, email has been indispensable. As a recently graduated and relocated student (I live in New York, about three thousand miles away from Davis), I found that email made communication easy between myself and professors, keeping them updated on my program choices, application progress, and submission.

For students who maintained either correspondence with their professors or even a syllabus from one of their professor’s classes, it takes little to no time to search and send a recommendation request. The key? Send the email well in advance. Give recommenders time to respond as well as to consider what they would possibly write in your letter. I reached out to my professors a few months before I planned on submitting my applications. I used my school email for the initial email as it was one they would be most familiar with, but I also cc’ed the new email that I would be using post-graduation and for all future correspondence. Making initial contact with your school email, assuming you still have access, makes it less likely that your professor does not open the email due to the unfamiliar address or that the email goes to junk mail. 

Once the email chain is set up, try not to break it. If you or your professor would need to look back at any information previously passed on or find a document already sent, it will be within the single chain, without the need to click through a dozen separate emails. Maintaining a single email chain makes for an easy search of materials for your professors and helps you keep track of what you have or have not sent.

Finally, have templates ready to go. Most of the emails I sent to professors contained much of the same information, I made one template and changed it as needed. This made sending four to five emails a more streamlined process for me, and ensured I was including all the necessary information such as the program, application due date, etc. I found templates particularly useful for the collection of all my professors’ contact details in one place, the initial ask, the delivery of information on myself, and any other important information regarding the schools to which they would be sending recommendations. 

Organizing Information

Once the email chain is set up and professors that are willing to write you a recommendation have been contacted, they often request further information to ensure a thorough and comprehensive recommendation letter is written. For example, they could review old exams or essays, previous grades in the class, a student’s personal statement. The amount and variety of information they require can be overwhelming. From the CV to transcripts to the detail in which interests are discussed in the statement of purpose, it seems endless. 

What I found to be helpful when faced with competing requests for information was aggregating all the requests into one document containing all the details a recommender could need. Organizing my information that I then sent to each recommender not only made answering their requests easier, but also made the application process more manageable. For each professor, I put together a short document outlining:

  • Programs for which I was applying
  • Important deadlines/dates
  • General information about the programs 
  • Specifics that interested me about the programs
  • What I would include in my statement of purpose
  • Courses I had with the professor and the grade I earned in them
  • Relevant personal details

Essentially, I gave professors everything I thought they would need to write a strong recommendation letter. More importantly, by giving them all the necessary information in one document, I decreased the likelihood that something would get lost via email or forgotten. Furthermore, the document confirmed what programs/universities each professor would receive submission emails from and by when they would need to submit the recommendation letter.

Dossier Services and University Requirements

Some universities accept recommendation letters from dossier services like Interfolio. These services allow students to collect their recommendation letters and send them out as needed without compromising the confidentiality, and thus credibility, of their recommendation letters. Furthermore, these services can be particularly helpful for those students who would like to continue in academia, as many of these services allow you to look for and apply to open positions at universities. That said, some universities do not take letters from dossier services at all. I suggest reading the recommendation letter instructions for each university carefully, creating a document where each school’s requirements are properly outlined, and, finally, notifying your professor as to the manner of submission.

Concluding Note

I hope that both professors and graduate school applicants benefit from these tech tips and tricks that I obtained during my own application process. These strategies aim to make the application process more efficient and effective for all parties, and to maintain the positive and supportive relationships among professors, students, and alumni of UC Davis. I wish you all the best with your application preparation and letter-writing endeavors. 

Post Author: lcsaco

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