Ten tips when asking for a letter of recommendation

Academics get asked to write a lot of letters of recommendations, and we are pleased to do this!  Letters of recommendations can be really, really important when students are applying to grad school, or applying for scholarships.  Strong letters can make a big difference, and that means it’s essential that students approach this with seriousness, maturity and professionalism.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, here are ten things to do, more or less in chronological order:

1) Plan ahead: Ask for letters well ahead of the deadline!  Never, never assume your Professor will have the time or inclination to write a strong letter if the deadline is two days away.  Give lots of advance warning (at least several weeks).

2) Ask nicely.  Approach your Professor (in person, if possible; with a telephone call, or over email), explain what you are applying for (and why), and ask whether s/he might be willing to write you a letter of support.

3) Ask what kind of letter you might get!  You need to know whether it’ll be a strong letter, or one that is perhaps less in-depth.   In many cases, if I’ve only met a student in one class, and only have a grade to base a letter on, then I won’t be able to write a strong letter.  You deserve to know this, and it may affect whether or not you should ask someone else.  Don’t worry – most Academics are able to be honest (and nice) about what kind of letter they might be able to write.  You must find out, early on, so that your chances of success are as high as possible.

4) rite gud.  In all correspondence with the person who is writing a letter for you, ensure there are no grammatical or spelling errors.  Be professional, respect credentials (e.g., don’t start with  Hey prof Dude….), and make sure what you write is readable.  Avoid common writing mistakes.  This makes a big difference.  Sloppy writing, poor grammar and spelling mistakes make me think less of a candidate and will affect the strength of a letter.

5) Include ALL the relevant details, in one well-composed e-mail:

a) What you are applying for (in appropriate detail – don’t just say “I’m applying to do a Master’s in Biology”)

b) When you don’t know your Prof. all that well, remind them who you are: it is helpful to state what course(s) you might have taken with the Professor, in what context, how you did in the class, and anything else to help those old minds recall who you are!.  You may think that your instructors remember you well, but this is not always the case (we see hundreds of students each year, and we are all getting older…),

c) Provide a ‘statement of interest’ to give some context to why you are applying for a particular position or scholarship,

d) Provide an informal transcript, or at least your GPA so your Prof doesn’t have to ask for this later, and possibly your CV.

e) Provide the deadline for the letter! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to email  a student to ask them what the deadline is.  It’s annoying having to deal with email overload, especially when it is avoidable.

f) If there are PDF fillable forms, or web-links for the reference, make sure to include these!

g) if the Professor is going to get an e-mail from an Institution to which you are applying, make it clear that they should expect this.

 6) Follow-up! If you haven’t heard anything within a week of when you sent your one e-mail, stop by the Prof.’s office, or give a phone call, to make sure that s/he received the details.

 7) Make it easy: Always make the process of writing a letter of recommendation as easy as possible.  In many cases PDF fillable forms have parts that are to be filled out the by candidate ahead of time – do this!  For hard copies, make sure to fill in parts that you are supposed to, and always include a stamped envelope with the address written out.  It’s YOUR job to ensure the letter gets sent by the Professor, and you don’t want their Department to have to pay for postage!  If you are required to pick up the letter and send it in as an entire application package, provide two envelopes – one for their confidential letter, and another that they can slip the official envelope into – arrange a system by which you can pick up the letter.

8) Send a reminder... A few days before the deadline, send ONE reminder e-mail – politely remind your Professor that the deadline is approaching.  For me, this is absolutely critical!  I am usually aware of the need to write a letter for a student (it’ll be in my ‘to-do’ list), but that little reminder will stir me into action.

9) Say ‘Thank you’ – It is classy and professional to say thanks to whoever writes letters of recommendation for you.  If your application ends up being successful, or you get that scholarship, you can even send a post-card, or a short thank-you letter (yes, in the mail!) – that leaves a very positive and lasting impression (and you never know when you will need another letter…). As a minimum, send a short ‘thank you’ email.

 10) um, sorry, I don’t actually have a tenth tip.  Except, perhaps, be sure to follow the nine that are written above! (maybe you have a tenth?)

…I hope this helps!

Students: you will get a better letter if you follow the tips. 


16 thoughts on “Ten tips when asking for a letter of recommendation

  1. Here’s another thing I expect from students: some information that will be useful for me in writing the letter. If they know me from the lab, they should write a few paragraphs on their specific project. If they know me from a class, please tell me about the projects or papers they wrote in class. A rule of thumb is the students should spend as much time with a careful request as they expect us to spend writing the letter.

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  3. Thanks Joan: yes, that’s a great ‘rule of thumb’ – asking for a letter of recommendation should never be rushed – spending time for a careful request is key.

    Fred – so glad you found this helpful!

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  5. Chris, thanks for the great advice for students. We intend to post your blog on our departmental moodle page so that it can be easily accessed by our biology undergraduates. It’s somewhat reassuring to see that many of the “mistakes” that our students make when requesting letters of reference are common to other universities. I also try to explain to our senior undergraduates at the start of the academic year that getting a high grade doesn’t guarantee an excellent reference letter. Other elements can be very important too when evaluating a student, such as whether they come to class prepared, participate in class activities, ask questions/generate discussion, work well with others, etc. Grades are obviously very important, but they are just one evaluation metric. This always comes as a bit of a surprise.

  6. Tim – thanks for the comment! I agree: I think the ‘mistakes’ regarding getting a letter are completely widespread and common to most institutions. Great point about how students need to recognize that grades are only one piece of the puzzle.

  7. Chris, I have a tenth (to which you alluded in 5, but I think it deserves its own). Use the appripriate medium to contact me. Either come see me in my office or send me a professional email. Do not send me a message using FaceBook or Twitter – very unprofessional.

    • Dale – great point – I do think that social media is perhaps NOT the right tool to use when students are asking for letters of recommendation – some formality is required and important. Thanks!

    • Hmm. Keep in mind that, for the current generation in college, email is viewed the same way that we viewed postal mail ten years ago. A visit with a conversation is best, of course, I agree. However, if you do ever interact with students using facebook or twitter at all, then from their perspective it’s perfectly professional. And they’ll be the professionals in ten years and still will hold that same opinion. If they did tweet me with such a request, I’d just tweet back, in my own sweet time whenever I felt like it, “then come see me in my office.” and I’d include a link to this post. Thanks for writing this post, Chris, good stuff.

      • Thanks Terry – good point – I suppose the key thing is that the student must determine what is ‘professional’ for the particular person with whom they are asking the letter – for me, a DM over twitter might be OK, for my colleague down the hall, an email may be the best. Thanks for the comment! Much appreciated.

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