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Since I graduated as an undergrad three years ago, I've been planning to go back into graduate school, so I saved all my assignments and heavily kept up on studying and research. My transcript looks good and I've had a lot of time to focus on GREs.

The most uncertain and anxious part is getting letter of recommendations from my former professors. Due to my nature, I haven't maintained contact with the three professors I have in mind, especially given the job I have. I'm confident that they'll remember me if I send them a quick e-mail, but I'm hesitant about the timing. It seems a bit awkward to re-establish contact out of nowhere without letting them know my intention, but at the same time, I feel it's a bit too early to let them know I would like to start looking into graduate school.

I was thinking of sending them e-mails stating my intention to apply to graduate schools, be able to provide documents/statements so they have something to remember and write about me, and ask if they were interested on writing the recommendation. If so, I would follow up and provide them the application details several months ahead.

Is this better than asking them out of the blue when graduate application crunch time starts?

Also, for professors and those who wrote letter of recommendations, what are your experiences of writing recommendations for former students reaching back 3 - 4 years later?

Edit: Update on this below

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    After about four years in industry, I decided to apply to graduate school. I forget the exact timing, but I talked face-to-face to my undergraduate professors about five months before application deadlines, when I had narrowed my choices down to four programs. When I had things set up properly, they were happy to assist. I think giving them a heads up (and perhaps a face-to-face) with proper follow up is the thing to do. Even if you later change your mind and don't use their recommendation, they often appreciate knowing how their former students did. Just respect their time. – Not Quite An Outsider Jun 16 '14 at 23:56
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    Anything that gives them a reasonable amount of time to write the letters should be fine. Unless you're looking for advice, I'm not sure there's much point sending them a vague email along the lines of "Hey, I'm thinking of applying for grad school, would you be able to write me a reference for some as-yet-undecided school(s) at some point in the near-ish future?" but, once your plans have firmed up a bit, giving them some notice can't hurt. – David Richerby Jun 17 '14 at 9:02
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My recommendation is similar to those posted in comments. I worked for several years before applying to graduate school and did not stay in touch with my professors during that time. Approximately 4 months before I applied to graduate school, I sent each professor a brief (1 paragraph) email explaining my graduate education plans and career interests, and asking if they would be willing to write letters of recommendation, which would be due in November. I also indicated that if they were willing, I would send them my CV and a summary sheet of my college activities for their reference. I contacted them via email, as I lived in a different state than the college, and face-to-face meetings were impractical.

When they agreed to write the letters I sent them:

  1. A summary sheet listing each program I was applying to. For each program I listed the address and contact person (so the letter could be properly addressed), 1 line about why the program interested me, the names of faculty I was interested in, the application deadline, and specific application letter forms or links to online applications, if relevant.
  2. My CV
  3. A summary sheet highlighting specific grades in major-related courses; research projects and activities I engaged in during college; a 1 paragraph narrative explaining what I had done since graduating and why I was interested in pursuing another degree; and a list of courses I took with that particular professor/letter writer, along with the grade for the course and any special projects completed in those courses. Try to keep this to 1 page.

Although this sounds like a lot of information, work to keep it as brief as possible, while ensuring the professor has the information they need to write a strong letter.

You may choose to time this differently, but the four month window ensured that I had committed to applying and gave me time to identify alternative writers if they had declined. I'm not sure it would be useful to ask your professors a year in advance, as 1) your plans may change, and 2) they may not recall a commitment they make that far in advance. That said, I would make initial contact in the summer before you apply; if you wait until the school year kicks into full gear, your email might get lost in the shuffle. When I was applying I was advised by multiple people to provide all materials to my letter-writers a minimum of 2 months prior to the deadline. Many schools require letters to be written on specific forms, have surveys your letter writers are asked to complete, or even ask the letters be submitted online; it's unlikely the most recent application will be available more than a few months prior to the application deadline.

A few final notes:

  • Be sure to ask if they feel they can write you a strong letter, not just a letter of recommendation. Most faculty will be honest about this.
  • Send your letter writers an email two weeks prior to the application deadline to thank them and remind them of the approaching deadline. Many online applications will indicate when your letters of recommendation have been uploaded.
  • Be sure to thank them, both when they agree to write the letter and when the letter is submitted. Consider writing and mailing a formal thank you note, once the application is submitted. Also, contact them once you're accepted and have decided on a school; they like to know how it's worked out!
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So it's been 4+ years since I graduated from undergrad and more than a year since I asked this. I should write an update since this one got a lot of visibility. To keep it short, I got accepted into graduate schools that required recommendations.

My earliest application deadline was at the end of December, so I sent out e-mails to my past professors in August and September. One declined but two responded enthusiastically. Most applications requiring 3 recommendations, I had my boss's boss in my workplace write one for me as well. He could at least speak for my character, performance, and professionalism.

I sent these writers my CV, unofficial transcripts, statement of purpose, and list of graduate schools that needed these recommendations. In that list, I included each school's application deadline, which specific program I was shooting for, and a short note why I chose each of them.

The tone of the e-mail was akin to coming with "hat in hand", being honest with the fact they probably do not remember me, and offering to send the mentioned documents for them to decide if they would write a positive letter. I didn't outright ask them if they could write a recommendation, but if they would simply consider it given more information.

I've read so much horror stories about writers not responding or sending their recommendations on time, but I experienced none of it. These writers were awesome and I'm extremely grateful for them. Every time I got an acknowledgement that a recommendation was received, I would send an e-mail out thanking them and attached an updated list of schools still needing recommendations.

Thanks for all the help and comments in this thread as well.

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    Thank you so much for returning and sharing your experiences! – jakebeal Mar 14 '16 at 1:21
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The above advice helped me so much. I needed at least 2 recommendations from professors who could attest to my quantitative skills. I reached out to two professors by email, asking for their office hours. Even though both showed some reluctance (one was on sabbatical and said that he could only write about how I did in his class and the other had some doubts and advised that I take additional courses), they ultimately wrote the letters. I asked them about a month before the earliest deadline but you should ask as early as possible (preferably over two months early because professors are busy). Definitely try to ask them in person and come prepared with anything that could help them write the letter (resume, transcripts, statement of purpose, info about each graduate program and their deadlines, and a few sentences about why you want to apply to each program).

When I first emailed them, I didn't get a response back saying that they were going to write the letter...so I decided that I won't be able to apply and stopped studying for the GRE. A month went by and then I received notifications that they both submitted a letter to the program with the earliest deadline! I then had only a week to cram for the GRE and applied two weeks late to my first choice. But despite all of this, I was accepted to my first choice.

What I learned is that even though I was afraid of asking, I should have emailed them again to confirm whether they would write the letter or not. I just assumed that no response meant they weren't going to write it. Also, I almost did not apply to my first choice because I knew my application would not be completed by their deadline. One of my transcripts, one of the recommendations, and my GRE scores were submitted late. However, if you believe you are a strong candidate (high GPA/GRE scores, excellent statement of purpose that clearly shows that your goals and interests align with the program, etc.) and it's a program that you are really interested in, the admissions office might be understanding and still consider your application even if it was completed late. Most of my application was submitted by their deadline, so if you are missing a few things, just try to get them submitted as soon as you can but no later than a week or two.

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