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.
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.
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.
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