July 27, 2014

Why does it feel so awkward to ask for a letter of recommendation?

Rob Humbracht

"Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for medical school?"

It seems simple, really.  It's only 14 words, none at higher than a 3rd grade reading level.  It takes approximately 4 seconds to say.  And yet, these words make us squirm.

So why does it feel so awkward to ask for a letter of recommendation?

A few theories:

1) You're asking for a favor from someone you barely know.  You've never done much for the professor, so why should she spend time writing you a letter of recommendation?

2) The professor is, well, a professor!  Someone who's busy!  Accomplished!  Intimidating!  It's hard to ask this person because we put them on a pedestal.

3) Often, we're asking with other pre-meds around us, many of whom are angling for the same letter.  It's kind of like using a public bathroom - you'd probably rather do it in private, but you don't have much choice.

This awkwardness can cause real harm to your application if you don't acknowledge it.  You will put off asking for your letters of recommendation and fail to get letters in a timely fashion, which can delay your application to med school.

So let's all acknowledge that yes, this is a little awkward.  But it's not that bad.  Consider:

1) It's only awkward for you.  The professor probably gets asked this question dozens of times per year.  He's used to it.

2) It's not that big of a favor. A letter of recommendation takes 30 minutes to write (at most), especially when you're just using a template, as most professors do (this is not to malign templates; even good letters are written this way).  30 minutes is asking your roommate for a ride to IKEA or asking a friend to proofread your English paper.  Yes, you're asking for a favor, but it's not a huge one.

3) You must ask for letters of recommendation eventually.  You may as well get on the ball early.

4) What's the worst that could happen?  The professor will say no (or, actually, if you're like one of my former students, the professor will mock you, remarking that "you must be really desperate to have to ask me for a letter.").

So yes, it's awkward, but can't we get past that?

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