Nervous Applicants

Each year, I get a flurry of requests to write recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school. Application deadlines are around the corner, with most being sometime in December.

Occasionally, there will be students who are really nervous about it. There is one kid who asked me to write a letter three months ago, to which I said sure. Then I got requests for letters a month or more ago (they must’ve been the first among the applicants at all their prospective schools). Since then, they have been sending me a reminder every week to submit letters. By the way, the earliest deadlines are not till very late November, which we all know is an eternity in faculty time. I think the kid is really worried that I will forget or won’t do it. I understand grad-school applications are their whole life right now, but they cannot be bugging people this much. I said I’d do it, now leave me alone. I’ve got other stuff going on.


  1. I understand that it’s annoying but it’s a fact that for most faculty you’ll have to follow up at least a couple of times if you really want something done. I had to get 6 recommendation letters for my visa and it was like pulling teeth. From the first request they had 1 months, I sent long template letters so all they had to do was copy to letterhead and sign and we still applied a couple of weeks late because I had to borderline harass some at the end.

  2. Give them a deadline after which they are allowed to remind you (like a day before the actual deadline, as in oceans of time on the faculty scale). No bugging before then.

  3. Eh… I’ve almost never had a faculty member remember to do this. Usually at least two reminders are required, they are probably getting repeated alerts that their file is incomplete. You have the power in this situation. Cut them some slack.

  4. I much prefer the ones who think about things in advance to the ones who come to me the day before it’s due and say “I, like, was going to, you know, apply to, like, graduate school, so if, you know, you’d, like, recommend me, I’ll, um, need you to do that tomorrow.”

  5. I appreciate getting a reminder from students if I haven’t sent the letter in 2 weeks. That is long enough for the email to have scrolled far enough down on my list to be forgotten. I usually try to send out the letters within a day of getting a draft from the student, but sometimes grading interferes and I forget.

  6. Oh, man, I was that kid. I even had a scheduled set of reminders whose frequency increased logarithmically as the deadline approached (1 month out, two weeks out, one week out, 3 days out…).

    Now that I’m faculty, I realize how ridiculous (and probably annoying) this was… and yet, I still don’t mind the occasional student that does it. I tell them that it’s pretty low-stakes for me to delete an email, and that I’d much rather delete a few extra emails than accidentally miss a deadline. Which is not out of the question — with literally hundreds of letters to send out every year, it happens more than I’d like, and the squeaky wheels do get the grease!

    I’m spending today writing letters — I find it to be far from the worst way to spend the day before Thanksgiving. Thinking about each students unique strengths and how they’ve grown in our program is akin to an exercise in gratitude and appreciation. I hate the chore of writing letters, but I love my students, so it all works out.

  7. lyra: I’m also big fan of chunking, and basically do all letters for all undegrads in one day. Considering they all apply to the same graduate programs with the same deadlines, it makes no sense to me to keep doing them as they arise, as that takes too much mental bandwidth.

  8. I don’t mind being reminded, and generally appreciate it, but there is a subset of students who freaks out if the letter hasn’t been sent way before deadline. This is of course part of a we-have-met-the-enemy-and-they-are-us thing, because most of us are on the one hand reminding our students to not wait till the last minute to submit assignments and applications, etc., but on the other hand, in academia, let’s be realistic: most stuff gets submitted at the last minute (how many of us submit our grant proposals or meeting abstracts 15 days or more before the deadline?). This does create issues: I just ran in to it today with a student, an excellent student, who is freaking out that it’s 2 weeks before the deadline for his letter of recommendation and I haven’t sent it yet, and is on the borderline of losing it and acting unprofessionally.
    Maybe it’s the sort of thing that needs to be covered in freshman-level “University 101” type classes, in terms of the etiquette and requirements in regards to soliciting letters of recommendation: absolutely don’t request them at the last minute, but on the other hand if it’s ten days before the deadline and no letter has been sent, a reminder is fine, but don’t freak out. And don’t expect to be able to read and edit the letter in advance, it’s going to be confidential between your professor and the graduate program they’ve applied to. I’ve had students come to me with letters they’ve written themselves which are either badly written and/or not appropriate, and insist I sign them without any change: as well as students who insist on reviewing my letters of recommendation in advance and having edit/veto power over them, the thought of a confidential letter blows their mind (that’s actually not uncommon at my institution: multiple times I’ve had shocked students, expecting to be able to review and approve my letter before it’s sent, telling me, “it’s highly unethical to talk about someone behind their back! that’s violating my rights as a student!”)

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