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I'm a first-year undergraduate finishing up a course that I've done very well in with a professor whom I have a great relationship with. I'd like to ask him for a letter of recommendation, but it's not "for" anything in particular. Rather, I'd like to have it "on reserve" so that I can use it whenever I need letters of rec (internships, jobs, or eventually grad school, although hopefully by then I'd have professors to ask other than this one).

Is this kind of thing normal, or are rec letters supposed to be tailored to specific applications? What exactly would happen once the letter of rec was written? I assume I wouldn't be able to look at it.

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    Where do you want the professor send the rec letter to? – scaaahu Feb 3 '16 at 3:21
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    It would be useful to give your location, as the usage surrounding rec letters can vary widely. Many of the points raised in the answers apply only to certain locations. – fkraiem Feb 3 '16 at 8:07
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    @fkraiem Yup. In Austria this is exactly how recommendation letters work, and asking for a non-specific copy to take home should be the most common thing in the world. The entire "sending directly" issue is, as far as I know, an US thing. – xLeitix Feb 3 '16 at 8:53
  • @xLeitix Same in Germany for industry jobs, although in the academic sector it is starting to become more like the US system. – silvado Feb 3 '16 at 11:19
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    @xLeitix It may also be subject specific. I have applied to a position in Austria (math) where I was asked to have the letters sent directly by the recommenders. I have yet to see any position in math (at least in Europe or the US) where this was not the way it was done. – Tobias Kildetoft Feb 4 '16 at 8:31
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No, you can't. Here are some reasons that this would not be a reasonable request [in the US].

  1. Your professor is not going to show you the letter, so they will need to send it to every internship, job, or grad school themselves. Therefore there is no benefit to them to having a letter "on reserve".

  2. Letters are written very differently for internships and industry positions than for grad school applications, so a general letter does not make sense.

  3. There is no reason for a professor to waste their time writing a letter now that might not be used at all.

  4. There is no reason to write a letter that will be outdated. It is unlikely that a letter based on a freshman class would be useful for grad school applications, for example.

Instead, what you can do is ask your professor "I don't have a position in mind right now, but would you be willing and able to write me a strong letter of recommendation in the future for internships, jobs, REUs, or eventually grad school?" If they say yes, say something like "Thank you, in that case I would like to use your letter when I do. Is there anything I can do, now or then, to make it easier to write?" This gives them a chance to let you know what they need (what materials, how much advance notice, how much reminding); it also gives them a chance to make notes to themselves about your performance, to remind themselves when they do go to write the letter.

(You asked "...or are rec letters supposed to be tailored to specific applications?" In my field almost everyone writes just one letter for grad school applications, there aren't usually different letters for different schools; however letters for REUs or internships would be very different.)

It's wise of you to start thinking about this now, and you'll be glad to know you have someone who can write you a strong letter; they just won't write it until there is actually a position you're applying for (and not until the night before the deadline, if I'm any example).

8

No, that isn't how it works. A letter of recommendation should be:

  1. tailored to the recipient, or at least to the type of recipient (grad school, job, internship, etc)

  2. written (or updated) by the professor at the time it is sent

  3. sent directly from the professor to the intended recipient, without passing through your hands

Your suggestion would fail all three of these.

1 is pretty self-explanatory: internships, jobs, grad schools, scholarships, etc, are all looking for different things. You want the professor to be able to focus on what's relevant. A grad school might need to know about your skills in long-term theoretical research; an industry employer might only care about your ability to turn out satisfactory practical work on short deadlines. A letter that addresses the wrong aspects will be useless or worse. The professor doesn't want irrelevant letters going out under his name, either; he'll look like an idiot.

For 2, every recipient of a letter wants to know what you have done lately; usually (hopefully) that will be your best work. You don't want an outdated letter that misses your latest and greatest accomplishments, and a letter that's several months old won't be taken very seriously by anyone. Moreover, if the professor gives you a "generic" or undated letter, it's a blank check: even if you flunk all your classes, or get thrown out for cheating, you'll still have a letter with his name saying "SquarerootSquirrel is doing great!"

For 3, these days, most grad schools / employers / etc will want a letter sent directly from the professor, usually submitted via an online form. Everyone will feel more comfortable that they're getting the professor's honest opinion if you never have any opportunity to read (or alter) it. Based on this alone, I think most professors would simply refuse to put their letter in your hands, even if it were sealed.

But what you can do is to talk to the professor, tell him about your long-term plans for jobs or grad school or whatever, and say that you may be asking him for a letter of recommendation at some point. Ask him if that's something he'd consider, and if there's anything in particular you need to know or do (he may want a copy of your resume / transcript / etc). Then he can start paying closer attention to your work and thinking about what to write, or even start drafting a letter.

When the time comes for you to actually apply somewhere, tell him about it (at least several weeks before the deadline). Then he can just update the letter with your latest achievements, edit to focus on what's relevant for this recipient, and send it off. That part is very little trouble, even if you are applying to many different places.

5

In general you should ask for a letter of recommendation for a particular purpose at the time you need it. That purpose might be as generic as "admission to graduate programs in my field" or "to get a job as a software developer", and the same or similar letter might reasonably be sent to several places. However, it's not appropriate to ask for an all purpose letter of recommendation that will be valid indefinitely.

For example, you could get an A in my class this semester and then fail a class that I teach next year. At that point I might no longer be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you.

As another example, you might have taken undergraduate mathematics courses with me and then decide to study Victorian English Literature at the graduate level. It would be inappropriate for me to recommend you for such a graduate program since I have no expertise in the area and I have no way of telling whether you'd be well suited for it.

It's reasonable to discuss with a professor whether that professor might be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you in the future, but the professor will have to make a final decision at that later time, taking into account what they have learned about you in the intervening years and who the letter is going to and for what purpose.

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I'll disagree with the other answers slightly. Some universities will maintain "placement files" for their students, and these include recommendation letters. For example:

https://www.cwu.edu/career/placement-file-faqs https://www.uidaho.edu/current-students/career-services/students-and-alumni/placement-files#accordion-row-1b88c922-3ced-41b9-9322-cc8ab74ed173- http://gsep.pepperdine.edu/career-services/students-alumni/education/placementfile.htm http://www.whitworth.edu/Academic/Department/Education/Certification&CareerServices/CareerServices/PlacementFilesFAQs.htm

Most of the places I found are for education-focused job applications, and many career services offices seem to be phasing out the practice of maintaining placement files.

My advice to you, if you would still like to obtain a letter from your professor for future use, would be to stop by your university career services office and ask them for advice.

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    I'd fear that these letters would significantly fail as grad-school application latters, for example. Probably too generic or too low-level ("got a good grade in my sophomore-level course" ?), or out-dated ("... a few years ago") and thus not at all addressing the "what have you done lately". I'd recommend not being lulled into complacency by the possibility of "having letters in the placement office"... – paul garrett Feb 4 '16 at 18:45
  • I considered having a placement file once - I had two majors (biochem and math) and decided to pursue math. I thought that it would make sense to collect some biochem letters in case somehow someday I ended up back in biochem. I didn't worry about this for math since I expected to stay in touch with math faculty, and I asked for letters for math grad schools. Having the biochem letters would mean that I would have something to show if I decided to biochem again 20 years from now, given that the biochem faculty would have surely forgotten me by then. (I didn't end up doing any of this fwiw.) – Aru Ray Feb 4 '16 at 19:06
  • @paulgarrett I'm not sure why a recommendation letter for a placement file must be too generic. I completely agree that they would become out-dated, and therefore, suboptimal for most purposes. Of course, if you are applying to graduate school and intend to use a letter from a person who only saw you in an freshman level course, you might have other problems. – Aru Ray Feb 4 '16 at 19:10
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    I appreciate this counter-point, but I am skeptical specifically that the career services office knows anything at all about grad school recommendations. – Tom Church Feb 5 '16 at 4:13
  • @TomChurch I agree with your skepticism. My goal was mainly to point out that some career services offices maintain such files which may be used to store/send out generic letters. Apparently using such services may be (or have been) standard practice in some fields, but I would strongly recommend against using them for grad school applications, particularly in mathematics. – Aru Ray Feb 5 '16 at 4:27
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No, it is not normal, and not how it works as already explained by other answers.

"although hopefully by then I'd have professors to ask other than this one)." <-- This also shows that you are aware that most likely you will not need his letter in the first place (means, you are wasting his time).

My suggestion: Just ask him whether it is ok to use him as a reference in the CV and application forms in the future. For example, a few jobs ask you for a contact information of referees. This will give you a chance to later get back to him and ask for the recommendation letter when the time arises.

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