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Finding and Prepping your Recommender

By Dr. Alice Kelley, Assistant Dean, the College at Penn

At Penn, getting to know faculty can take a little effort. When the time comes to ask for recommendations, whether they be for fellowships or graduate study, one does not want to be scrounging around for a faculty member who can write something solid. Below, you will find some suggestions for advanced planning.

Getting to Know Your Teachers

  • Go to office hours with real questions, whether about coursework or about the faculty member’s own career path.
  • Whenever possible, enroll in small classes and seminars taught by standing faculty. Seminars are given a special section in the Course Timetable. If you aren’t sure whether a teacher is a visiting lecturer or one of Penn’s professoriate, check the departmental home pages. Most faculty members will have their own home pages or will at least be listed by title if they are a regular part of a department.
  • Take two classes with the same teacher once you make a good connection, for that way he or she can see your progress. Often, the College Course Scanner can help you find classes taught by a particular member of the faculty.
  • Do research or independent study work with faculty. In the Undergraduate Research Directory, you can find faculty who are willing to sponsor student research. Work study jobs are also a good source of research opportunities. Also, keep in mind that just talking with a professor whose work you admire can often lead to a satisfying project.

Preparing Your Recommenders

Even when you have taken several classes with a teacher, it is useful to provide him or her with reminders of your accomplishments. This makes detailed commentary possible. Here are suggestions for that process:

  • Always pick up papers and exams, even if you have to provide a self-addressed stamped envelope at term’s end, or show up for office hours the following semester, to do so. Comments on papers can be illuminating, and good work can go into your recommendation packet down the line.
  • Ask your teacher for a recommendation soon after you know that you have done well in a class, when you are fresh in his or her mind. If you need to return to that teacher for a fuller recommendation for a specific grant or program later, the initial letter will be available to work from. Obviously, it is wise to open your Career Services file early in your career.
  • When you ask a teacher to write you a recommendation, offer to include the following with the recommendation form:
    • Papers you wrote for the classes you took with him or her
    • If you took your class with this teacher several years earlier, provide a paper written later, something splendid, to show how much you have developed
    • Your resume, so that your recommender can find out, or be reminded, about activities in which you have been involved outside of class
    • A statement of your objectives
    • A copy of your application essay
    • A description of the specific scholarship or program for which you are applying
  • See if you can schedule an appointment with your recommender so that the two of you can talk over your goals, your academic interests, even issues about your choice of graduate programs. Usually your professor will have colleagues in other universities with whom you might like to study.

Remember, you should give your recommender sufficient time to prepare your letter. A detailed, thoughtful letter can take a month to prepare, given a professor’s busy life, and students who wait until the last minute to ask can miss crucial deadlines. Make sure that you provide a stamped envelope when you wish your professor to mail your recommendation. If you are going to collect the letter and send it along with your other application materials, provide a plain envelope for the letter and ask your teacher to seal it and write his or her name across the flap when it is complete. After your conversation, write your professor an email to thank him or her. In this note you can include a reminder about the application deadline and can ask, tactfully, that your teacher email you when the letter has been sent or is ready for you to pick up. For insurance, it might be well to have your recommender do a duplicate letter for your Career Services file.

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