How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for MFA Programs

Dear Professor Day, remember me?

Dear Professor Day, remember me?

Dear former student o’ mine,

Thanks for your email/Facebook message asking for a LOR. I’m glad to hear that you want to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing.

This is one of those moments in life—like graduation, marriage, the birth of a child, getting a job—in which you proceed through a gauntlet of people’s attentions, and thus, you need to follow rules of etiquette—not just with me but with every single person you are about to encounter. Not to go all Emily Post on you, but mind your P’s and Q’s. If you aren’t sure what those are, pay attention. I’m going to talk explicitly about implicit subjects related to the MFA Program Biz.

In an essay “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” Lionel Trilling said of this indefinable subject, “Somewhere below all the explicit statements that a people makes…there is a dim mental region of intention of which it is very difficult to become aware.” He says that manners are “culture’s hum and buzz of implication…the whole evanescent context in which its explicit statements are made…of half-uttered or unuttered or unutterable expressions of value…. They are the things that for good or bad draw the people of a culture together and that separate them from the people of another culture.”

Why am I saying all this? Because by asking me to help you get into graduate school, you are asking to join a culture called academia. When I applied to MFA programs 20 years ago, I was a first-generation college student from a working class family in a small, provincial town. Moving into academia was like moving to a foreign country. But I’ve lived in this country for a long time now. I’ve taught at four colleges, two of which had MFA programs in creative writing. I’ve read hundreds of admission files, sat in lots of rooms in which my colleagues and I discussed who to admit and why and who not to admit and why. I pretty much know what I’m talking about, but remember, I’m just one person and others might give you different advice—or they might not give you any advice at all because they think you should figure these things out for yourself. 

Okay Cathy, what is the etiquette for asking for letters of recommendation?

Here’s some advice. Here’s some more. Note that neither of these pages is about asking for letters for a graduate program in creative writing. I’ve read plenty on this subject from those who ask for MFA LORs, but nothing from those who write them. Which is why I’m writing this, I suppose. I’m getting tired of saying this in my office and over email and Facebook every single year.

What do you need in order to write a recommendation for me?

I need:

The writing sample you’ll submit with your application. Yes, I know you want to work on that up to the very last minute. But you have to send me what you’ve got.

  • Be sure to proofread and format your writing sample properly (I agree with everything in that link except don’t use Courier).
  • Remember to take out the extra space between paragraphs which is the new default in Microsoft Word.

A resume so I know what you’ve been doing since you graduated. If we are FB friends or if I follow you on Twitter, I have been passively following your journey all along.

A draft of your statement of purpose. Again, I know you want to work on this until the last minute, but I need to understand why you’re applying so I can incorporate that into my letter.

Any and all paperwork—organized, filled out neatly, due dates clear. A list of all the schools where you’ll be applying. Designate which schools use online recommendation systems and which ones use snail mail. If the school uses a snail mail system, you must send me all the paperwork, all forms filled out neatly, all the envelopes addressed and stamped. Here is my address, my rank, etc. You should endeavor to make this process as easy for me as possible. You should remember that I often write LORs for 10+ people each year, and each of those people is applying to 5-10 schools. If you don’t have your shit together, I will write your letter in an annoyed frame of mind, and you don’t want that.

Also, remember to always check the box that you don’t want to see my letter. Why should I waive my rights! you ask. It’s because if you don’t, they will not trust that my letter has been written confidentially.

When do you need all this?

No later than one month before the first letter is due. If you give me any less time than that, I will say no. After I write that first one, it’s easy to upload or send at the last minute for the rest of the year. But I can’t write a new letter from scratch or tweak last year’s without a solid month in which to work. 

Don’t you just use a boilerplate letter?

No, absolutely not.

I spend at least 1-2 hours writing each of these letters.

Remember: I’ve been on admission committees. I know my letters will be read by people in my profession. Unless they know me personally or by reputation, the only way my letter can truly help you is if I write it in such a way that I make a good case on your behalf. Of course, you have to make that case too—with your writing sample and statement of purpose. Seriously, these letters are not just some formality, some hoop I’m helping you jump through. When I vouch for you, I’m staking my reputation on you as a writer, scholar, and teacher (if it’s a program where you’ll be given the opportunity to teach). I’m saying to Schools A, B, and C that they won’t be sorry if they accept you. I’m saying you’re smart, talented, sane, mature. If you turn out not to be those things, then the next letter School A gets from me will matter just a little bit less.

Oh.  

I know that y’all talk incessantly about these matters in various online forums. I found this comment on the Poets &Writers’ message board:

The process of writing LORs, for professors at least, is a routine part of the job. Don’t worry about the volume of LORs you are requesting…Your LOR writer has written dozens of these kinds of letters over the years and could probably compose one for you in minutes. If you’re an especially talented student, he or she may even write something original. Regardless, the LOR writer will most likely use the same letter (swapping out names when necessary) for all of your schools.

This is so wrong it makes my teeth hurt.

Recently, I had to total up the number of recommendation letters I’d written over the last three years.

For people applying to MFA or PhD programs: 15.

For people applying to other grad programs (law schools, etc.): 12.

For people applying for academic jobs: 13.

For people applying for fellowships: 7.

Total: 47 letters at 2 hours a piece = 94 hours of my life.

But why do you need a month to write a letter?

Let me explain “my queue.”Let me explain how you ask a really busy person for a favor—because as a writer, you will need to do this for the rest of your life. 

There’s an invisible pile of work on my desk, a queue of requests, and tending to this queue is both incredibly satisfying and really, really tiring. One reason I don’t write book reviews is that I’m too busy writing all this other stuff instead; it’s how I practice good literary citizenship. I write a lot of LORs for people I know personally. For residencies, colonies, fellowships. For academic positions. For scholarships. For grad programs in law, architecture, teaching, film, nursing, etc. I write letters/emails to agents and editors on behalf of writers I know who are looking to publish their book. I blurb books sometimes—which means I have to read them first. I write letters/emails to people I know who want feedback on their book manuscripts, their job applications, their teaching philosophy statement, their syllabi, their book proposal, etc. And, because I’m active on social media, I’m asked questions there CONSTANTLY. I derive a lot of joy from answering those questions when I can—because once upon a time, generous people answered all my questions, and this is how I pay it forward. But understand that my queue exists, and when you ask for a LOR, you’re asking to be put into this queue.

I know this makes me sound like I’m some kind of fancy-ass writer. I’m not. In the scheme of things, I’m maybe low to moderate fancy. One thing I know: the fancier you get, the more people want to be in your queue, which means they will have developed a lot of rules about who gets into their queue and how they manage it. I shudder to think about the queues of [insert names of fancy-ass writers you know].

Why am I telling you this? Remember that the faculty writers you’ll come into contact with during your MFA search have big queues, too.

Maybe I should just ask someone else to write my letter?

No. Someday, when you submit work to magazines, when you get an agent and an editor, you will find this same situation exists. Recognize that you’re in a long line.

Don’t not get in line because the line is long. That’s dumb. Don’t act like an asshole because the line is long. That’s dumb. Don’t not raise your hand to go to the bathroom because the line is long. That’s dumb, too. At some point, you have to learn the fine art of being your own best advocate in this line without pissing people off. You might as well start now.

What will you say in my LOR?

Here’s some advice I got once about how to write a LOR:

“Be specific and use examples. Speak to the student’s performance in your courses, especially how they handled disappointments, criticism, pressure, and conflict.” 

So: If it’s been a few years since you graduated, refresh my memory. Also: remember, it’s really important how you perform in my classes, since that’s what I’ll be writing about. How do you want me to remember you? 

“Know the student, know the opportunity they seek, and know why you’ve been asked to write the letter.”

So: don’t assume I know anything about the school where you’re applying. Does it have a particular focus—on the environment, on hybrid genres? Is it an MA, MFA, or PhD program? Are you trying for a Teaching Assistantship? If there’s anything unique about that program, tell me so I can speak to that.

“State who you are and the nature and length of your relationship with the student. Use comparative numbers or rankings when possible.”

So: I have to say things like “Joe’s writing ranks in the top 1% of all students I’ve ever had.” Or “She was in the top 25% of students I taught this year.” 

“Be honest (but cautious).”

So: I’m not going to lie. Also, if I don’t think I can write you a good letter, I will decline your request. I might give you a reason (too busy, etc.) or I might just say “no.” Don’t argue with me or overthink this. You don’t want someone to write you a letter reluctantly. 

“Describe the person, not just the student. Use your particular viewpoint or lens into this student; don’t repeat information available elsewhere on the application.”

So: come see me during my office hours and let me get to know you. It’s your job to teach me who you are, not the other way around. 

“Know and meet the deadline.”

So: remind me gently of my responsibilities. Remember, I might be sending 100 letters in any given year.

“Make the student work for the letter – give you enough time, and provide supplementary materials to help you write the letter.”

Anything else?

Oh, student o’ mine, I still have so much advice.  

Like:

Please keep me posted about what happens—where you get in, where you don’t, where you decide to go. A real physical thank you note is always appreciated.

If you don’t get in one year, try again. Seriously. 

Apply to 5-10 schools if you really want to get in somewhere.

Don’t be snobby about geography. I once had a student who was torn between law school and the MFA. I talked to him about a bunch of good programs, including what I’ll call Western State University, where a writer I knew had just been named director. A few weeks later, the student told me he’d decided on law school. When I asked why, he said, “Well, you encouraged me to apply to Western State, so you must not think I’m any good.” Moral of the story: he really didn’t want to get an MFA, but he wanted his not applying to be my fault, not his. Here’s a good article about this topic.

If you want to teach someday, think about going for the PhD.

Don’t use the P&W list for anything other than a place to start doing your own research.

Don’t be fooled by snazzy websites or the prestige of the school generally. Those things have nothing to do with the quality of the MFA program.

Oh, I have so much more to say. Future topic: the statement of purpose.

Also: here’s a great piece by Tayari Jones on how to get a great letter of recommendation.

CW Programs General Teaching The Biggest Things

15 comments

    • Cathy Day says:

      I write on average about ten letters a year. When people are applying to lots of jobs, or lots of schools, or lots of gigs, it means, yeah, I might send the same letter multiple times. I encourage people to use dossier services like Interfolio or the AWP Career Center for just that reason. But MFA hopefuls don’t use dossier services. Those are the biggest pains in my butt. Some use a service that sends my letter to multiple schools at the same time–upload once and boom, your letter zips off to 5 schools at once. But others, I have to go to the school’s website, upload, then go to the next school’s website, upload, repeat, same as sending individual stamped envelopes to each school (like in the olden days).

  1. Peter says:

    I have an even greater appreciation for you having read this! Great advice. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about the personal statement. You can expect a lot of clicks from me over the next couple months.

  2. Lowry Pei says:

    Cathy, you’re doing a great public service by posting this. I’ve already referred a student to it and I’m sure will be using it regularly. I look forward to the future postings about MFA Land.

  3. Might we question this system itself? Here am I, no doubt older than Cathy (who I applaud) and published, and hard-working, though not in academia. If I’d like to go to Yaddo or Breadloaf, to whom do I turn for letters of recommendation? And why are they so necessary? I’m mature, I’ve been employed for thirty years . . . are these things about being a “good fit” with the colony or about being young and sexy? I hate asking for letters. I half-heartedly applied to grad schools in my younger days (half-hearted because I thought school and working to pay for school would interfere with my writing time). One lor came my way, from a playwriting professor. He wrote “EF has applied to your graduate progam. I recommend her wholeheartedly.”

    I didn’t get in to that program.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Elizabeth,

      It could be that the playwriting prof wasn’t aware that a longer, more detailed letter was expected. That happens sometimes. Also, sometimes famous writers compose the briefest of letters because they figure their name alone should be enough. I’ve been on admission committees and job search committees and seen that sort of thing. It’s not fair, but don’t let that experience prevent you from trying again, if that’s what you want to do.

      I know what you’re talking about. It’s much harder to get letters when you’ve been out of school for awhile. Actually, the other day I was thinking about applying for a fellowship but had a hard time coming up with three writers familiar enough with my work to write a letter for me. Most of the writers I know are 25 years old. It’s also hard to find writers willing to blurb your book when the time comes. Like you, I hate asking for letters. And blurbs. Because I know how much time it takes to do them well.

      A few years ago, I realized that I was going to have to start making it part of my “job” as a writer to know other writers, to be a part of a literary community, basically “to know people.” Call it networking, a word I hate. I don’t call it “networking,” but it is something I do more consciously now than I did 10 years ago. If you’d like to go to Breadloaf, Yaddo, etc., let me suggest some possibilities for you that don’t involve dismantling the system:

      –Ask the editors of the magazines where you publish work to vouch for you.

      –Go to a writers conference like the Midwest Writers Workshop (I’m on the committee) or the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference or the Imagination conference in Cleveland, just to name a few. if you have the opportunity to have your work read by an author there, jump on it.

      –Take a class (IRL or online) via a writers’ center, such as The Writers Center of Indiana or Grub Street or The Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Your instructors can then write letters for you.

      –Or maybe one of these experiences, you’ll develop a friendship with another writer with whom you can trade work. If that person has some credentials, maybe they can write a letter for you when you need one.

      –Propose a WWII-themed or historical fiction/nonfiction panel for AWP and write to people you admire who might potentially be able to blurb your book or write LORs for you and ask them to be on that panel.

      –Also, it has never been easier to “know” writers via social media. Some of my students have formed mentor-like relationships with writers they’ve met on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.

      Here’s this: I write a lot of letters for people trying to go to places like Yaddo and Breadloaf, know lots of people who try to get into those places, people who are young and sexy and/or well connected, and they often can’t get in either. We’re in a really competitive field, as you know.

      But maybe what you’re really asking about is WHY DO WE NEED LETTERS AT ALL? Why can’t the work speak for itself? Well, here are some reasons. Because LORs play an important role in the vetting process. Because they help to weed out (but do not totally eliminate) candidates who might be crazy, dangerous, ill prepared, etc. Because when you’ve got 300 candidates for 10 spots, you really do need to weigh as many factors as possible, and taking into account the word of someone who knows candidate really does help. Also, LORs are basically the same thing as the old-fashioned Letter of Introduction. When Hemingway was heading to Paris, he asked Sherwood Anderson to write him a letter of introduction so he could meet Gertrude Stein, and he obliged–one of the reasons Hemingway’s criticism of Anderson in Torrents of Spring was (to me) a huge betrayal. if you’re Gertrude Stein, or Breadloaf, or Yaddo, and there are all these people who want to come into your house, how do you decide who to let in? You can’t just open the door. That’s probably not safe or practical. You have to figure out a way to screen, and it’s just human nature to ask someone, “So, you know X, right? What do you think?” It’s how we apply for jobs, too, by offering up a list of names of people who can vouch for us.

      I hope I don’t sound patronizing. I’m sure you understand all this. I know how frustrating it is when you feel like certain clubs are closed to you. Oh, do I know that feeling. But my advice is: don’t let yourself get angry and resentful. Think of it as a challenge, as all part of the process of becoming the writer you want to be. We can rail and rail about the adage, “It’s who you know,” or we can accept that it’s just a reality that’s never going to go away and prepare ourselves to start knowing people–not in a skeezy, opportunistic way, but rather in a professional, positive, way. The more good people we have in our lives, the better, right?

      I want to thank you for asking your questions. I might turn this now-quite-long answer into a post of its own.

  4. Chinmayee says:

    Thanks for this post Cathy.

    I would like to do an MFA, but I have a problem that looks pretty big right now! I have a Masters in Economics and several years of workex in a field completely unrelated to writing. I live in India where there are no workshops or conferences to attend. My work is unpublished and I do not have any literary mentors. Is it impossible for me to apply for an MFA? I just do not see my Econ profs writing any LoRs- or the letters being at all relevant!

    Do you have any advice for me?

  5. I stumbled on this post and it has got to be the most enlightening, thoughtful and solid truth-telling information about requesting LOR. As I am about to request my LOR, this text provided me with the ability to be considerate of a professor’s time and the need for me to extend professional courtesy. I truly appreciated these words, they awakened in me the importance of preparedness on my part and the decent act of compassion for an individual (recommender) who can possibly change the course of my life. Thank you, Charlotte

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