I specifically focus in this post on how to ask for a letter of recommendation for an MFA program, creative writing residency, writing scholarship, or other creative writing endeavor. However, I think that a lot of this advice applies to people seeking letters of recommendation for all kinds of things.
The point of a letter of recommendation is for a committee, university, or organization to hear from someone who is not you about you as they decide who to choose for the opportunity you’re applying for. There are a lot of criticisms out there about how much unpaid labor goes into writing letters of recommendation and how much they are actually weighed when it comes down to decision-making. I think that many of those concerns are valid. However, we still exist within bureaucracies where letters of rec are the norm. This is the system we are operating within, so I think it’s good to know how things work. As always, the things I say in this post are my opinion and based only on my personal experience as a recommender and recommendee. You should also do other research and ask other people about their best practices for recommendation letters. Some people may disagree with my approach for good reasons! There are many ways to go about this.
Is it okay to ask?
What I want to say first is that most people are happy to write you a letter of recommendation. When in doubt, ask! The people who’ve mentored you, worked alongside you, and taught you are the people who want you to succeed. Don’t let fear of asking for a letter prevent you from applying to something you want.
Sometimes, places only ask for a “reference contact information” which might mean that the person doesn’t actually have to write a letter, but just that their phone number and email are listed in your application. In that case, if you become a finalist for that opportunity, then they will give the reference a call or email. (Make sure you still ask your reference, though—don’t just list someone’s phone number without their permission.)
Other times, the organization will ask for their contact information so your recommenders can send full letters right off the bat. Most times, those places give you a link to send to your recommender. Then, the recommender uploads that letter through the link, and you never see it. It is customary for you not to have access to the letters your recommenders write (there are some exceptions).
If you are confused about the recommender process or whether your recommenders actually need to upload letters or just list their contact info, it is perfectly acceptable for you to send a short, polite email to the organization or university to clarify this before the deadline.
How do you figure out who to ask?
What I have heard from a lot of people is that the obvious people to ask for this kind of thing are college professors. However, if you didn’t go to college, haven’t been in college for a long time, or didn’t know any of your professors well enough to ask for a letter, there are still plenty of people you can ask. When I applied to MFA programs, I had been out of college for about five years. I was doing a lot of poetry work in my community, so I asked for letters from two respected poet-mentors who I’d collaborated with a bit, who were older than me, and who had a good sense of who I was. One of them worked as a professor, though I had never been her student. I asked her because not only could she speak to my accomplishments and personality, but I knew she was well-acquainted with the recommendation process. Some of the schools I applied to asked me to send them a third letter, and for them, I did also ask a mentor from college whom I’d known really well, even though I hadn’t been her student for five years.
Have you taken any community writing classes taught by people who could write you a letter of rec? Does the person who runs a writing workshop you’ve participated in know you and your writing well? Or, are there people who don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of your writing, but can speak to your work ethic and creativity? It’s a balance—you typically don’t want a family member or best friend to write you a letter of recommendation because there would be a conflict of interest, but you wouldn’t want to ask someone who barely knows you, either. You could ask another poet in your community. I know of a couple of people who’ve specifically signed up for a writing class or joining a writing community so that they can be mentored and build the types of relationships that will come into play for future letters of recommendation.
Can I ask the same person for a letter multiple times?
While, of course, you don’t want to burden one person with dozens and dozens of recommendation requests, it’s perfectly okay to ask the same person multiple times for letters of recommendation when you’re applying to different things, especially because they will already have a draft they can just modify for the new request. Right now, I have four or five people who’ve written me recommendation letters in the past and who have expressed that they’d be happy to do so again. I encourage you to view past mentors and recommenders as members of your “team.”
How exactly do I ask?
I find that a lot of people (including me) tend to feel kind of bashful when asking for a letter of recommendation. It can make you feel selfish because you’re asking someone else for something that will benefit yourself. However, many people in a position to write you a letter of recommendation have benefitted from other people writing them letters. Typically, they are happy to pay it forward and write you one!
There are a few instances I know of in which someone has said no to writing someone a letter. Sometimes, someone is a famous writer and someone has asked them for a letter even though they only met for a few days three years ago. The famous writer might say “no,” not because they don’t like the person, but because they receive 100 requests a season like this and don’t have the time to write them.
I know of some other instances in which someone is applying for something way out of the realm of possibility (like, if you were an eighth grader with a 2.5 GPA applying to Harvard). That recommender might say no. If you’re not sure whether something is within the realm of possibility for you or not, you could ask your potential recommender! You could say in an email, “I’ve been thinking about applying to the Breadloaf Writers Conference. Do you think I have a shot? Or do you think I should wait a couple of years?” You could ask this if you don’t yet know.
In almost every case I know of, however, the recommender says yes to the recommendation request.
I am used to writing letters of recommendation for students I had in class a few years ago about whom I remember details to varying levels. I have also written letters for other poets I’ve known in the community, poets I’ve done readings with and have hung out with socially (though again, it probably wouldn’t make sense for me to write a letter of recommendation for best friends I speak to almost every day or to write a letter for my partner—that would be a conflict of interest).
Some more tips to keep in mind:
- Give the recommender enough lead time. Four or six weeks is ideal. That allows the recommender to fit writing the letter into their busy schedule. It is not a great idea to ask just a day or two before the letter is due.
- Tell the recommender how and when to upload the letter. Do they email it to someone? Upload it to a portal? Will you send them a link? Tell them. Also, give your recommender a due date.
- Send the recommender your resume or CV. You can include this in your recommendation letter request email. They probably don’t know of all the awesome things you have done! Your CV or resume conveys these things easily. If you are including other materials in your application (cover letter, writing sample, etc.), you could attach these in the email to your recommender. The more information your recommender has about you, the easier it will be for them to write the letter for you.
- Tell your recommender why you are applying. Why do you want to do an MFA? Go to a writing conference? etc. Telling your recommender why helps them align their recommendation with your other application materials and gives you the best chance of succeeding. You could even list this in bullet points in your request email or a supplemental document.
Sample Recommendation Request Email:
Hi [Their name],
I hope you are well! It was great seeing you last weekend at the poetry reading. [Or, if you haven’t talked to them for a long time, you could say something like, “I hope you’ve been well since we ran into each other last fall,” “How have you been?” etc.]
I’m writing because I’m wondering if you’d be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for [MFA program, writing conference, scholarship, etc. Make sure to describe what the opportunity entails.].
Letters would be due by September 15th and are uploaded by the recommenders through [link]. I’m attaching the CV and cover letter I’m sending them for your reference. I’m also attaching a list of bullet points about why I’m applying, what I hope to gain from the opportunity, and some of my major poetry accomplishments over the last few years. If there’s anything else I can provide as you consider my request, please let me know!
Thanks for considering,