Graduate school applications generally require up to three letters of recommendation from faculty members, and writing such letters is part of a faculty member’s job. The more thoughtfully and responsibly you handle the process of asking for those letters, the more likely it is that the people you ask will be able to write thorough and supportive assessments of your work.
Choose Your Recommenders Carefully
Faculty members who know you and can speak about your class participation as well as your excellent work on exams and papers will be able to write more detailed letters than faculty members who only know you as a name in their gradebook. Other factors may be worth taking into account (the rank of the faculty member, the relationship of their expertise to your intended field of study, the length of time that’s elapsed since you took their class) but on the whole, the faculty members who know you best can write most effectively about the quality of your academic work and the probability of your success in graduate school.
Give Them Plenty of Time
Asking for letters at least a month before they’re due is ideal. Two weeks is acceptable; more time is fine (but it’s probably good to send some follow-ups as the deadline nears). Sometimes asking for a letter at the last minute is unavoidable (a recommender gets sick, or a time-sensitive opportunity arises), but if at all possible, give your recommender ample to time to write the best possible letter.
Talk to Them Early in the Process
Start talking to professors as soon as you think you might be headed to grad school. Showing up in office hours with thoughtful questions will help to set you apart and make you memorable. If the faculty member works in your intended field of study, they’ll be able to give you valuable advice and insight into potential programs. They may also try to talk you out of it — but having those conversations is a vital part of the process, so don’t shy away from them. If the faculty member does not work in your intended field of study, a conversation about your plans and interests will help them write an effective letter.
Prepare for Your Future Plans
If you plan to wait for a year or more after graduation before you apply for grad school, it’s good to communicate with your potential recommenders while you are still on campus, and then follow up periodically. Arrange a meeting to discuss your possible grad school plans and ask about their willingness to write for you before you graduate. After you graduate, stay in touch. A brief email every six months or so with a friendly greeting and news about what you’ve been doing and how it fits in with your grad school plans can help to keep the connection alive. Once you decide to start the application process, give your recommender as much advance notice as possible. Supplementary information like copies of your course papers, your recollection of particular moments or discussions from the class that stand out to you, your personal statement for the application, and your resume might help them write a more thorough and helpful letter.