I will be applying to start graduate school in the U.S. next year during the Fall. Currently I am an undergraduate senior student and most programs require three letters of recommendation with the application. I know professors are busy people and many programs have different requirements for the format of the recommendation. Hence, it might take some time for a professor to do the different recommendations. How early should I send the initial email requesting for a letter?
Contact the professors now! There's no reason to wait. You can just tell them you are interested in having them write letters for you, if they are willing; they can at least start thinking about what to write. Then as soon as you have decided which schools to apply to, send them the details on how to submit the letters and the deadlines. I would say this should be a bare minimum of 2 weeks before the deadline, preferably much sooner.
After that, don't hesitate to remind them periodically of the deadline, until they tell you the letters have been submitted.
The earliest deadlines are often Dec 1, ... so you'd want to be requesting letters at least two months prior. Further, do be sure to make such requests _in_person_, not by email (even if you arrange an appointment by email). As you can imagine, it is a bit of extra work to generate such letters and do the (often ridiculous) on-line stuff to register them at several places... so you are asking a favor. Not a huge sacrifice, but something. So don't just do it by email, I think: go, in person, smile, and use affect and body language to express your appreciation. :)
- How well do you know the people you will be asking for letters of recommendations from?
- Have you consistently gone to office hours?
- Have you shown an interest in the material of the course above and beyond what was required for a grade?
- Have you assisted any of them in their research efforts, and if so, what contribution have you made?
- Does your department have a formal policy on how letters of recommendation are handled? Some programs of study (Pre-Health, Pre-Law, etc.) have offices dedicated to the coordination of the application process for advanced degrees and will have their own criteria on deadlines and how applications are handled.
If you have done your part as a student and been actively engaged with the people you will be asking for letters of recommendation from, then you should already have an idea of who your references will be and what their styles are as to how approachable and willing they will be to give you the recommendation and what the demands on their time are. If you haven't been engaged with them, then
- Don't expect much more than a form letter or a flat out refusal
- Expect to ask as soon as possible as you will go to the bottom of their list of people to write recommendations for as they will prioritize those students whom they know on a more personal basis and have engaged them.
- Unless you need to remain a student to fulfill the requirements of a visa, then consider a gap year and work on the third and fourth bullets above so that you gain the experience and build the relationships you need this year to get more than just the perfunctory letter of recommendation from three disinterested faculty who will only have as much time for you as you had for them.
You are obviously asking them to do you a favor, even though it is one that is an expect part of their chosen profession, so the more time that you give the person you are asking for a recommendation is not only the courteous thing to do, it also shows that you are organized, committed, respect their time and effort in your success, and are deserving of more than just a Lucas was in my X course and he got a grade of Y answer to a boilerplate letter of recommendation. Participation in a course and doing the work to earn a respectable grade is part of your job description of being a student. Asking for a reference comes from the things that you did that went above and beyond those requirements.
Also prepare a highlights sheet of your life and academic career to this point for your reviewers, in writing, and invest the time in it that you hope that they will invest in you, so no grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes. Give your pertinent autobiographical information including the grades and instructors for course work related to the field you are applying to. List out awards you have received, accolades such as making the Dean's list, etc. Tell them about why you are applying to the field you are applying to, what went into the choices that you have made to get you there. Give them an outline of the things that you hope that they will say about you in your letter. And personalize it. Let them know how they influence your choice in the direction that you will be taking with the rest of your life. If you can articulate the difference that they made in your academic career in order to want to pursue it further with an advanced degree, then they will likely put more effort into your request.
Oh and don't forget an old-fashioned, hand written, Thank You note, in a card or on stationary if they do agree to be your reviewer. It will show that you value their time and your future.