Greetings! We are excited to share a blog post from Zachary Schuyler, a current University of Chicago graduate student, detailing his approach to requesting a letter of recommendation. We receive many questions from our students about the types of recommendations we require. Professional? Academic? Both? Only academic? The short answer we share in our Admissions FAQ: it is best to have letters form individuals who know you well and can speak to your strengths and preparedness for graduate study. For some students these letters may all be academic, for those who have been working for some time they may all be professional, and for others they may be a combination. Very often when you approach your recommender they will be enthusiastic and eager to write your letter, but we understand some applicants approach this step in the process with apprehension, especially if they have not requested a letter of recommendation before. If you are hesitant in approaching your recommender we encourage you to read Zach's post below, which breaks down the process into easy and manageable steps. Best part is, we are still over a month from Round One (JANUARY 20TH) so you still have time to follow Zach's process below:
I think a lot of applicants struggle with this important step in their application because they fundamentally misunderstand the responsibility involved in getting faculty, coworkers, and others to write recommendations. At the end of the day, the recommendation letter is written about you, for you, and it is up to you to manage the task.
Plan of attack
What I typically do before I even ask any individuals about recommendations is make sure that I have planned out exactly what I am asking who to do by when. I have an excel spreadsheet with each of the applications, how many recommendations I need and the due date. I then create columns for one week, two weeks, and one month before the due date. For recommenders who may be traveling, or professors unavailable between terms, allowing two months is helpful. I have these dates added to my calendar and send out reminders at each date. If you haven’t been in touch with your recommenders recently you may want to have a resume handy to share. You should also know where to direct the recommender if they need more information about Harris. https://whypolicy.uchicago.edu/ is a great start. Last thing to do, schedule a time to meet with the individual—in person if possible.
Now is the time to relive all of those awkward asks in your life. The time you asked the popular boy/girl to prom in high school. That time you asked a friend in college to set you up with a formal date. Take those and put them to the side. You will be asking people who know you well and can speak to your skills and your fit. These recommenders are often in a mentorship role and are eager to help you with your next steps and to speak about your qualifications.
Make the ask in person if possible. I am a person who is not against showing gratitude for these individuals whom are willing to take time to recommend me, so I often show that appreciation by buying my recommender a coffee and sending a thank you email/note after our meeting thanking them for their time. Make sure at this meeting you are able to provide your recommender with your resume, and are prepared to discuss your motivation for applying to Harris or even share a draft of your motivational statement (BONUS - your recommender may give you some helpful tips on your statement!). Also be ready to discuss why you believe this program is a good fit for your future endeavors. If you’re struggling with the Why Harris? question, you can reach out to Jenny Erickson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and she will happily work through why Harris Public Policy has the right program for you. Also important, thank your recommender when they agree to write, and ask them if they have any advice for you.
It is important that you tell your recommender the expectations. Inform them when the recommendation letters are due and how they are to be submitted. Even after you’ve explained these expectations to the recommender, it is still your responsibility to make sure your recommender follows through. This is why the initial planning is important. You already have the timeline planned out so that you can remind your recommender at different points to make sure they know when the deadline is approaching.