Playbook: recommendations

There are different ways to go about selecting and contacting recommenders, but I always opt for the most courteous/thoughtful and organized path. (Good manners will take you far in this life–seriously!)

Select your recommenders based on A) how well they know you, your work, and work ethic; B) the time lapse in your communication; and C) their disposition towards you.

  • Make a list of 3-5 recommenders. It’s possible to have more than 3 recommenders write for you. I don’t mean sending 4 letters to schools that have a 3-letter limit, but that 2 recommenders might write for all 8 schools, while 2 other recommenders write 4 each based on their affiliation as alumni, colleagues, visiting scholars, etc.
  • If you don’t think a recommender will remember you right off the bat, be ready to refresh his memory. “Hi Dr. X, I was in your CW200 class in fall of 2009. You had a great lecture about Y, and we wrote these pieces based on Z. I still have that project and my notes.”
  • Choose someone who not only knows you, but holds you in high regard. Don’t choose anyone (if you have a choice) who has antagonized you, or doesn’t think your pursuit is worthwhile.

The first contact should be early on, but not too early. If you contact recommenders 6 months out, they won’t remember to write it five months later. Make a cordial, no-pressure point of contact sometime in the fall. This is a request, and recommenders have the option of saying no, so approach with care. *Try not to email a request while simultaneously attaching all your CV and school info since that could be presumptuous.

  • If you’re still in school or freshly graduated, take your prospective recommender out for coffee or meet him in office hours. Let him know what you plan to do, and tell him why he’d be a great recommender.
  • If you’ve been out of school for a long time, call then email. Calling may seem awkward, but it’s more formal than an email, and making your recommender hear your human voice may incline her to help you. Touch base and let her know you’ll email your CV, list of schools, a piece of writing from her class, and submission information a month before deadlines. (If no one picks up, leave a message and send an email laying out your request.)
  • If you’ve never taken a creative writing course, and/or it’s been ages since you’ve been in school, you can request a recommendation from someone at work (boss, supervisor, project leader). This person should understand how you’d be an asset to a writing program where you’ll be in numerous group situations (e.g., grad classes, editorial work, teaching). Take or audit a creative writing class at a community college or nonprofit center, and request a letter from the lecturer or workshop leader. This doubles as a great way to familiarize yourself with the workshop process.

Fully detailed emails should be sent out 1 month before your soft deadline, which should be set at about 2 weeks before the hard deadline. (If your deadline is Dec. 1, then work to get your letters in the 3rd week of Nov. in case of emergencies.) Make this form email very organized and user-friendly. And include your phone number in case you have a non-computer savvy recommender. *Avoid mass emailing; personalize everything.

  • Requesting a letter without enough of a time cushion could negatively impact the quality of that recommendation. Make sure that you give your recommenders about 1 month to think, plan, draft, (procrastinate) and submit. Include your CV, short work sample, school list, uploading instructions.

Gentle reminders should be sent 1-2 weeks before your soft deadline to those who have not yet uploaded letters. Check the school websites to see who has submitted and who hasn’t.

  • If you receive no response, then contact a back-up recommender. This may be a more distant professor, or work supervisor. Let the new recommender know your circumstances, and then provide all the necessary information and deadlines if she agrees to write a letter. There are definitely no-show recommenders who just drop the ball completely, though some schools are a bit more lenient than others about timely letters.

Thank recommenders for their thought, work, and punctuality by writing a card or sending a small gift. In the past, I have given recommenders cards, wine, tea, chocolate, a scarf, and a small vase. And as a recommender, I have received letters, coffee/tea, and a beautiful leather journal that I still use. Small gifts are not required, but they make a big difference. And you never know, you might need another recommendation a few years down the road.


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