Asking your professor for a recommendation letter can be very unnerving, especially when you’re not sure on how to approach the subject.
But you will likely need to ask them for one for your college admission, graduate studies, or job applications.
To help you get started, here are 12 professionals who speak from their experience on how to ask a professor for a recommendation letter:
Table of Contents
- Deciding which professor to ask
- Selecting a time to ask
- Making it easy for the professor
- Requesting the letter
- Make your request in writing
- Be specific in your request
- Keep in touch
- Give complete details
- Give enough writing time before the deadline
- Highlight your strengths
- Tell the professor exactly what you need the letter to say
- The best approach is direct and respectful
- Students I write for
- Student I do not write for
- Give as much information as possible
- Pick the right one
- Talk to them in person
- Build close relationships early
- Keep a good log of what you got out of each class you took
- Do some research
- Polish your resume and make a outline
- Request early
- Working relationships in class
- A recommendation letter from a professor stands out
Founder and CEO, Accepted | Author, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools
There are four key steps to the process of asking a professor for a letter of recommendation:
Deciding which professor to ask
The applicant should ask professors who know them well and for whom they did excellent work in an area relevant to their desired area of study.
Selecting a time to ask
Roughly six weeks before you want the letter submitted, set up an appointment with your professor. You may want to set a due date for the professor roughly two weeks before it’s actually due, so your meeting would be eight weeks before the due date.
Making it easy for the professor
Before you meet, prepare two succinct documents to help the professor. Numbers 2-4 below should not exceed two pages.
- A resume highlighting your achievements. If this is for a U.S. professor, it should be no more than one page.
- A brief summary of your achievements with this professor. For example, regular attendance at office hours, participating in a research project, receiving merit-based awards as a result of efforts in the professor’s class, etc.
- A list of the schools you are applying to and the reasons you are doing so.
- Goals statement.
Requesting the letter
Ask if the professor would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for you. If the professor says “yes,” give her the documents in #3. If not, you need to ask another professor.
My advice to students: make it easy for me to write about you.
Our college requires students to give specific written permission, to comply with privacy (FERPA) laws, before an instructor can dash off a letter. Gone are the days when you could pop your head into your teacher’s office and ask for a letter of recommendation. Once viewed as a favor, writing recommendation letters is now more of a chore.
Here’s what students should consider:
Make your request in writing
Do the back work and find out if your college has a particular form that must be filled out, and get that form proactively.
Be specific in your request
I have to have permission to reveal what classes a student took from me, how they did in class, or their grades — all details that might help in a reference letter. Also, permission issues aside, tell me what the letter is for. I will probably write a different letter for a potential employer than I would for a grad school application.
If it’s been a while since you were in my class, remind me who you are and when we worked together. Something simple like, “I was in your fall 2017 Humanities class” is usually enough.
I love doing all I can to help students achieve future success, and this includes providing recommendation letters. The complexities of modern education and privacy concerns have added layers to this task, so help me help you, by following the rules and giving me plenty of time to craft a letter that will really assist you in meeting your goals.
Dr. Luz Claudio
Professor | Author, How to Write and Publish a Scientific
Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide
As a professor and director of several training programs, I receive many requests from students and former students for letters of recommendation for jobs, internships, awards, and any other kind of opportunities that alumni of my programs may encounter.
Here are three of the six most important tips that I advise students to follow when they request a letter of recommendation from me:
Keep in touch
Keep in touch with professors from whom you think you may want to request a letter of recommendation later. Few things are more frustrating to me than when I have not heard from a former student in years, then suddenly, they contact me just to request an urgent letter of recommendation.
First of all, I could not even begin to write the letter if I have lost touch with the student, don’t know what they have been doing since they worked with me, and have no idea of their achievements until I receive the letter request.
I tell my students to keep in touch with their most important mentors. Just sending an update once or twice per year is enough or being in contact with them every time they have a career change, such as a new job, award, or publication.
Getting into this habit keeps the lines of communication open so that the request for a letter doesn’t come as such a surprise.
Give complete details
Provide ALL of the details relevant to the letter. I would never give a blanket letter of recommendation. All my letters are written specifically for the occasion that the student needs it for at the moment. Therefore, students need to provide the information on who the letter needs to be directed to, the full name of the opportunity for which they are applying, whether the letter is to be given to the student or sent directly to the program, etc.
Give enough writing time before the deadline
Ideally, your request for a letter of recommendation should be submitted to your professor at least two weeks in advance. This will allow enough time for me to schedule it into my calendar, ask any questions I may have about the letter, and look for any records I may have on the student’s prior performance.
Importantly, be appreciative of your professor’s time and effort in providing you with a letter of recommendation. Sending a thank-you note would be nice.
I’m a former assoc prof and pharmacist/lawyer who has been asked to write hundreds of recommendation letters for students.
Highlight your strengths
My best advice, and what I always ask of students asking – is for them to take their top 3 strengths and describe how the strength has been used on a project or in the classroom with me.
Here is an example:
being futuristic and writing a paper on the future of healthcare in my course. Or, woo, and helping me with a conference during their final year rotations with me.
They need to create the stories (pulling from reality, of course) and situations where I worked directly with them, where they also had the opportunity to flex their top strength muscles – that is the best info for a recommendation letter. Then, of course, I put my own commentary on it for the actual letter.
Scott C. Hammond, Ph.D.
Professor, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business Utah State University |
Author, Lessons of the Lost: Finding Hope and Resilience in Work, Life, and the Wilderness
It is hard to write a letter for a student who I have never seen outside of class. But I can write letters that glow in the dark for students who have been with me on study abroad, worked on a paper, or who have established a mentor relationship with me.
Tell the professor exactly what you need the letter to say
For example, “I need them to know I am a good writer,” or “I need them to know that I am reliable and have good math skills.” I always ask the student to provide a resume and three important things I can say about them that are related to the job or graduate school application.
Creative Writing Professor, Southern New Hampshire University | Author, Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens
I love to write letters for students who remind me of what class they took with me, and when. I want to know if they’ll use the letter to pursue a job, a scholarship, a graduate program, or something else specific. I love it when they include a current resume, and when they tell me a bit about their family/hobbies/current passions.
Especially, I’m grateful when they also send me their best work from the course we’ve shared so that I can easily refer to it in my letter.
Extra points for a sincere and friendly letter that conveys a sense of gratitude.
Rakesh C. Gupta
Associate Professor, Adelphi University
Having gladly written hundreds of letters of recommendation for students (and alumni), I find most student’s “ask” lacking. But, I try to make it into a teachable moment!
The best approach is direct and respectful
Try to make it easy for the professor to say yes. Make an appointment with your professor, and arrive fully prepared with:
- copy of your resume
- what job/program you are applying for, where, and WHY
- who is to receive the letter
- the title of the receiver
- receiver’s complete address
- suggestions as to what the professor should emphasize in the letter about your background and your skills
When learning how to do something new, it is as important to learn about best practices as it is to learn about the common missteps. As a professor at a large school in Central Florida, students often ask me for letters of recommendation. I am happy to accommodate many of them, but I decline a few from time to time.
Students I write for
The students I write letters for are typically students who, in addition to being good students, have taken multiple classes with me, visited during office hours, and kept in touch after class ended. This familiarity helps professors know the abilities, personalities, aspirations, communication skills, and temperaments of students better.
Student I do not write for
Conversely, the students I do not write letters for are students who took only one class with me and, apart from the in-class time together, never reached out during office hours or after the class had ended. I teach well over 300 students a year, so it is hard for me to remember every student and their academic abilities, performances, personalities, aspirations, communication skills, and temperaments.
Professors who write strong letters of recommendation need to know students well, and taking one survey course with your professor many moons ago won’t give them the information they need.
I once received a request to write a letter of recommendation from a student five years after he took my class. I forgot who he was, to say nothing about the fact that I could not ethically recommend him if I could not even remember if he was a good student or not.
So, if you think you will need letters of recommendation, be a good student and get to know your professors. Visit them during office hours and ask for more help. They will be happy to do so and, when the time comes, write you a letter of recommendation.
Study Guide Writer, The Helpful Professor | Learning Advisor at Swinburne University
Professors are aware that it can be awkward asking for a letter of recommendation. Students often feel like they are putting the professor out, or they don’t know the professor well enough. You should know that we get this request all the time, and we expect it as part of our jobs.
I write a letter of recommendation for most students who ask unless I don’t feel comfortable recommending the student to the employer.
Give as much information as possible
If you want a letter of recommendation that stands out above the rest, you need to give your professor as much information as possible.
When you email your request to the professor, it’s good to provide:
- an outline of the job you are applying for (so your professor can write the letter of recommendation based on the job’s selection criteria)
- a copy of the feedback your professor has provided on one of your assignments (so they can review what they’ve previously said about positive aspects of your work)
- a photo of your academic transcript (so they can see your grades across all subjects you’ve studied)
- any additional requests for what you’d like them to discuss in the letter
With this information, most professors will be able to write an accurate and thoughtful letter of recommendation, even if they don’t know you all that well.
Digital Marketing Strategist, Fueled
I recently graduated from NYU last spring, and I have had to ask a few professors for recommendations and they have really helped me.
Pick the right one
Before you can ask a professor, you need to make sure you pick the right one. That doesn’t mean the professor who’s class you’re doing best in. You need to choose someone who knows how hardworking you are and can go more in-depth on who you are as a student to write a more personalized and authentic letter.
Talk to them in person
For me, I would approach them after class and simply ask. Most professors are willing to do so if you have cultivated a relationship with them. Do not let the first time you ever talk to them one-on-one be when you ask them for a recommendation letter.
Talk to them outside of class about something they said in class, homework, projects, anything! A good letter of recommendation will come from someone who really knows you.
College Counselor, Empowerly
Build close relationships early
By the beginning of your junior year at the very latest, you need to have a good working relationship with a teacher, coach, boss, etc. If you’re scrambling, think about which teachers and mentors you currently have a good relationship with, and send them an email detailing why you know each other well enough for them to write you a rec letter.
Express gratitude and understanding of how valuable their time is, right off the bat!
Keep a good log of what you got out of each class you took
Instructors are not going to want to write you a rec letter if they don’t think you learned anything from them. If you’re asking at the last minute, make sure you have this information fleshed out with a specific lesson, concept, and anecdote on how it changed your perspectives.
Be specific—a generic “this taught me that history really does repeat itself” or “this taught me that physics does have value outside of the AP test” is NOT going to cut it.
Do some research
Research on the school for which the letter is intended. What qualities are they impressed by? How does their approach to education and research align with your experiences and contributions? The letter isn’t going to be more than a page, go for (pertinent) quality over quantity.
Polish your resume and make a outline
Have your resume polished, and an outline of what you need the rec letter to emphasize. The recommender may ask you to write a draft recommendation; this is VERY common, especially if you wait until less than one month before the deadline to ask.
This is part of how they see whether or not you got something out of their class, and makes their job a little easier. Don’t be sketched out by it. They are ultimately still the ones approving it and vetting your claims. They’ll probably rephrase it a bit anyhow.
Ideally, you should ask at least three months before you need the letter to be submitted.
If you’re asking later than that, never underestimate the power of a good thank-you note and a small bag of healthy snacks. Teachers like to feel appreciated.
Hiring Manager | Owner, Mom Beach
Working relationships in class
The way to get a letter of recommendation from a professor is to establish a working relationship during your time in class. After class ends, go up and ask the professor questions about the curriculum so that they start to know your name. A professor has 50 students in a class or more, so they can’t remember everyone.
If you’d want them to end up writing you a letter of recommendation, you need to stand out. A letter from a professor will help you secure a job after graduation.
When I was looking for employment, I had a letter from my professor, which helped tremendously. The employer called him, and he said really great things about me. I was then hired within two weeks of the interview.
A recommendation letter from a professor stands out
As a hiring manager, if an applicant gave me a letter of recommendation from a professor, then it would make them a stand out candidate. I know how busy professors get, and if this applicant has secured a letter from one, that speaks volumes about their worth ethic and personality.
When you graduate, you have no experience in the working world, so you have no employment references. It is definitely worth it to get to know your professors so that they can write you a letter to help you find work!
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