5 Steps to Getting a Letter of Recommendation from Your Professor

If you’re pursuing a college degree or have recently graduated, you may need to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation for a graduate school application, scholarship, internship, or job. Even if you’re not required to include a professor as one of your references, you might want to consider this option, especially if you are in school or have limited full-time work experience. Professors can offer an evidence-rich perspective of their students’ technical knowledge, communication skills, collaborative abilities, growth, and potential for success.

Asking a professor for a letter of recommendation can be daunting, but the five-step system below will guide you through the entire process, from choosing the best professor to approach to writing the initial email request to following up before and after the letter has been sent.

Asking a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

CC-Licensed Image from Flickr User TheeErin

1. Choose the right professor to ask.

Not every professor you’ve had will be in the position to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Approach professors who you know well and who would have meaningful things to say about you. Professors who have supervised your research, interacted with you in small classes (especially those with collaborative or service-learning projects), or evaluated your writing or public speaking often are excellent choices.

2. Approach the professor the right way.

After you’ve identified the professor who might best serve as your reference, email him or her your request. State why you need a recommendation letter, and also explain specifically why you’re asking him or her for help. If you have a resume, personal statement, or other materials that might help the professor make his or her decision, indicate this and mention that you’d be willing to share these documents by email or during office hours.

Making your request before or after class–or even during office hours–is ill advised. Unlike a face-to-face discussion, email allows you to explain in a composed, no-pressure forum why you believe your request is appropriate. In addition, by posing your question in an email, you give the professor time to decide whether his or her schedule and knowledge of your work permit him or her to write a recommendation letter on your behalf. For that reason, your initial email request must clearly identify the letter’s due date and required method of delivery.

What happens if the professor says no?

If your request is turned down, don’t take it personally. Oftentimes, professors will say “no” because they feel someone else would be in a better position to serve as your reference. For instance, perhaps the professor has a scheduling conflict or doesn’t know you or your work as well as other professors might. In these instances, by refusing your request, your professor is keeping your best interest at heart.

On the other hand, if your professor agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, here’s what you need to do:

3. Make writing the recommendation easy.

Review what you’ve already sent to your professor, and provide any additional materials that may help him or her write a strong letter of recommendation. If you’re not sure what to send, ask. More than likely, your professor will appreciate that you’re thinking ahead and trying to make the process efficient and productive.

Also determine if your professor needs to complete a confidentiality form or cover sheet in addition to your letter. Most scholarship and graduate school applications require these forms from references, and it’s your job to make sure your professor has timely access to this material.

How to Email a Professor Asking for a Reference

CC-Licesed Image. (Provided by the Author.)

4. Re-confirm details immediately prior to the due date.

Follow up with your reference 7-10 days before the letter’s due date. Again, email is best. Your goal is to gently remind your professor of the impending deadline and to re-confirm important details like how and where the letter should be sent. Strive for a helpful tone by saying something like:

“Thanks again for agreeing to write a reference letter on my behalf. I’m checking in to see if you need additional information from me before the letter is due on_____. As we discussed, the letter can be [mailed, emailed, uploaded] to [address or URL].”

5. Say thanks!

Once the letter’s due date has passed (or earlier if you’ve been notified of the letter’s delivery), write your professor a personalized thank-you note explaining why you are grateful for the help.

By following these simple steps, you’ll help your professor write a detailed, persuasive letter of recommendation on your behalf. What’s more, you’ll improve the likelihood that your professor will agree to write another letter of recommendation for you in the future.

Posted in Business writing, Workplace Writing

Adding Personality Test Information to Your Resume

Would you consider adding information from personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Big Five Inventory to your resume?

Recently, I came across the study “Improving Employee Selection with a Revised Resume Format.” Researchers Edward Wright, Theresa Domagalski, and Ronald Collins (2011) discovered that adding results from personality tests to your resume could be helpful, particularly if you are a recent college graduate who is pursuing an entry-level position in a business-related field.

Wright, Domagalski, and Collins also identified how job seekers might best discuss and display results from personality tests on their resumes. But first, to understand why job seekers might include results from personality tests on their resumes, it’s important to know more about the ways personality tests are used in other stages of the job search, such as pre-career planning and post-resume employment screening.

Personality Tests, Career Guidance, and Employment Screening

Personality tests aid job seekers in career planning, and they also help employers make hiring decisions. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator uses self-reported data to measure a respondent’s “preferences” for certain behaviors or ways of thinking. The combination of these preferences corresponds to one of 16 personality types, such as “ENTJ” (Extraversion, iNtuition, Thinking, Judgement). According to the Myers-Briggs website, knowing more about your personality type can help you better understand yourself, including the kinds of work and professional settings you might find fulfilling. For this reason, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator often is used to guide people in choosing a career path. (For instance, students at Ball State University can take the full Myers-Briggs Indicator at no charge. Many abbreviated, free versions of the assessment are available online. Check one out if you’re interested. What type are you?)

Like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Big Five Inventory also is a self-reported personality assessment, and it measures the degree to which one exhibits five personality traits: extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, and openness to experience. Unlike the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, tests that measure Big Five personality traits are used more often during employment screening because “studies have provided strong evidence” that they can “predict job performance” (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011, p. 276). Knowing more about a job applicant’s personality traits and how they might position him or her for success in a given professional role or environment helps employers make better hiring decisions (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011).

Traditional Resumes as an Imperfect Measure of “Big Five” Traits

Many employers value the predictive capabilities of personality testing during the employment screening process. For this reason, Wright, Domagalski, and Collins (2011) tested whether incorporating personality assessment information on the resume–and therefore, divulging it earlier in the hiring process–would help employers make more efficient, accurate personnel decisions. Of course, as Wright, Domagalski, and Collins (2011) point out, the resume already is used during employment screening to make inferences about applicants’ personality traits, including Big Five characteristics. However, these assumptions may be inaccurate. Citing a study by Barrick, Patton, and Haugland (2000), Wright, Domagalski, and Collins (2011) explain that resumes often cannot be reliably and consistently used to make inferences about all personality traits, including conscientiousness and emotional stability, which are part of the “Big Five.”

Personality Data on Resumes: Who Should Do It and How

Because resumes are an imperfect measure of some personality traits, Wright, Domagalski, and Collins (2011) “wondered if the inclusion of personality assessments could add value to [the resume’s] use as a recruitment tool” (p. 273). To answer this question, they queried human resource professionals in a variety of fields; most respondents were from mid-sized companies in the U.S., India, and China. Respondents were shown two similar resumes for an entry-level applicant, but one resume included personality assessment data from a Big Five test while the other did not (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011). Based on feedback from 107 human resource professionals, researchers concluded that job seekers may wish to include results of Big Five personality tests on their resume because:

84% of respondents perceived the [personality] profile data as useful and 66% of respondents believed the information was a valuable addition to the resume.

Interestingly, survey participants’ age, gender, and industry affiliation didn’t appear to influence the results of the study (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011, p. 280)!

Where might job seekers include personality assessment information on their resume for maximum impact? The resume tested incorporated personality data in a short, 3-paragraph narrative placed after the header (i.e., name and contact information) but before the education section and objective statement. (Yes, the resume tested included an objective statement, and the appropriateness of that decision is beyond the scope of what I’d like to discuss here!) The first paragraph briefly introduced the applicant’s chief achievements. The second summarized the applicant’s Big Five scores: “Ms. Smith scores high in Conscientiousness in her Big Five profile with moderately high scores in Agreeableness and Openness to Experience” (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011, p. 284). The third and final paragraph described specific activities and achievements that complemented the personality testing data provided in the second paragraph.

Who would benefit from this resume strategy? Incorporating personality assessment information and other supporting evidence on the resume is viable strategy for some but not all job seekers (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011). While the 3-paragraph narrative described above is short, it still occupies valuable “real estate” on the resume. So, job seekers who have more extensive work experience may not want to sacrifice this information to make room for “profile data.” Finally, job seekers in fields like business that value Big Five personality testing may benefit the most from a resume that explicitly references this data (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011).

My View: Resumes with Personality Data as the “New” Cover Letter?

The resume format promoted by Wright, Domagalski, and Collins (2011) looks like a hybrid resume-cover letter that combines features of both documents. Interestingly, they tested this form because of what they learned in an earlier pilot study. In that smaller study, they learned that survey participants (human resource professionals) responded poorly to profile data when it was displayed on an additional, separate page (Wright, Domagalski, & Collins, 2011). In fact, in my opinion, this document looked and behaved much like to a cover letter.

Ultimately, the study by Wright, Domagalski, and Collins (2011) makes some interesting, if indirect, claims about the relative value of cover letters. What’s more, it re-affirms important lessons about writing for the hiring process: Few hard-and-fast rules exist for cover letters and resumes, and what is a good strategy for one job seekers may not be a good strategy for another.


Wright, E., Domagalski, A., & Collins, R. (2011). Improving employee selection with a revised resume format. Business Communication Quarterly. 74(3), 272-286. doi: 10.1177/1080569911413809

Image Reference

Cantoni, B. (2015). Scantron. Creative Commons-Licensed Image. Retrieved from Flickr.com.

Posted in Business writing, Resumes and Cover Letters
Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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