Asking professors for letters of recommendation is pretty much a rite of passage in college. You need them for everything from scholarships and internships to graduate school applications and even jobs after graduation. Professors expect these requests: The format of each letter is similar overall, customized for the individual student and their schools (or job) of choice.
Still, it’s added work for your professor, and more importantly, a glowing letter of recommendation can help you land the program and career of your dreams. So your approach to requesting a letter of recommendation matters.
Know thy professor
First of all, approach only those professors with whom you have a real relationship. You’ve done more than just taken their classes, you’ve frequently asked for their advice or help during office hours. In other words, you’ve gotten to know each other during your academic studies.
Marketing communications strategist Matt Hames compares asking a professor for a recommendation letter to asking someone for help with moving. “It is an intimate thing, and not one to be taken lightly.” He adds: “Professors tend to be really detailed and thoughtful people. So if you ask for a letter, and they give it, it will take a lot of time. A lot of time.”
Ask early and ask in person
For a favor of that caliber, it’s best to ask in person if at all possible. Offer to provide specifics by email if that makes the task easier for them. Obviously, if your professor is on a sabbatical or serving as guest lecturer at another university or otherwise away, a request by email will have to suffice.
And ask early. As deadlines approach for graduate school applications, professors start receiving requests for letters. Most students apply for three to six programs each, while some for as many as 10.
In fact, some professors will have cut-off dates for requesting a letter, so if you think you might want to request it of them, don’t be afraid to informally ask their policy even before you start the application process.
It’s important to preface the request, whether in person or by email, with an easy opt-out, such as: Please let me know if this is not a good time for you or if you’d rather I ask someone else.
This is important because you absolutely do not want a lukewarm recommendation letter or, worse, one that is negative.
Make sure it’s a glowing recommendation
If a professor feels unable to write a good recommendation letter, it’s common practice for them to tell students to ask a different professor. If you experience any resistance or hesitation at all, heed that. It’s better to make the effort to find another source than to take the chance of getting a negative letter. Anything less than a glowing letter of recommendation can be extremely damaging to your chance of being accepted into grad school.
Kelly Rencher says she received a negative recommendation letter. It was completely unexpected and unknown to her because of the standard confidentiality factor (letters are never seen by the students). She thus unwittingly had a negative letter in her application package to Ph.D. programs, most of which rejected her.
The practice today is that students have the college application link sent to their professor automatically when they’re filling out the online application. The student enters the professor’s email address and other contact information where indicated on the school’s application page. The professor then receives an email directly from the college with a link to the institution's online recommendation form, where they can upload their letter.
The electronic process means you don’t see nor can you obtain copies of the recommendation letters. So, during your initial discussion with that professor, you need to be absolutely sure you’ll be getting a positive recommendation.
You can ask explicitly: Do you feel that you could provide a positive recommendation for me?
Make it easy for them to write your recommendation
When you do get a positive response to your request, provide as much relevant information as possible, then ask what that professor what other information they require to write the letter.
Obviously, they’ll need to know which college program (or job) you’re applying to, the contact information (or how they will receive the recommendation request), and the due date. They may also ask for your academic resume, which should include your GPA, academic achievements, volunteer positions, and extracurricular activities. Your professor may ask for points you feel they should mention, in order to craft the letter for a specific application.
“The more context you’re able to provide, the better the recommendation and the easier for them to write it,” career strategist and CEO of Job Hunt School Courtney Kirschbaum tells us.
“For example, ‘It’s for my application to the State University English Master’s program’ or ‘I’m applying to the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School.’ If you’ve been given specific guidelines, share them. If it’s an automated online form, be clear about what they will receive, when and how, and how long it will take them to complete it. If you don’t know these things, find out before making your request.”
Example of a recommendation letter request
Here’s some language you can use in your recommendation letter request email. If you're asking in person (hopefully you are), use this as inspiration.
Subject line: Reference Request from Julia Kimball
Dear Dr. Noland,
I hope you’re well. I am applying to the law programs at the University of Richmond, Wake Forest University, and The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and I’m hoping you would be willing to serve as a reference for me.
In the few years since I left UVA, I’ve been doing immigrant advocacy work with the ACLU and volunteering with my local refugee assistance program. Your class on international relations sparked my interest in immigration law, but it is these experiences that have solidified my passion for it.
I’ve attached my resume and a little more information about what I’ve been doing in the last three years.
Please let me know if you feel that you could give a positive recommendation. And if so, what other information would be helpful in writing your letter.
Thank you for your time. I saw your recent article in Forbes and I would love an update on your most recent work.
Say thank you. Send the professors who took the time to write your recommendation letters a note, a gift as a token of your honest appreciation. Remember how important those letters can be to your future. And, adds Kirschbaum, “let them know that you look forward to returning the favor.”
“Maybe you don’t feel like you’ll ever be in the position to do your professor a favor but there’s every chance you will. Life is funny like that. Offer up a ‘Don’t hesitate to ask if there’s any way I can ever help you. You’ve got my email. I look forward to returning the favor.’ And mean it. That’s a class move.”
Examples of recommendation letters
Because of the confidentiality aspect built into the process, you will not see the recommendation letter written on your behalf. This is the case whether or not the application process is online (for any offline submissions, the envelopes containing the letters must be sealed).
However, you can see samples of what you would hope your professor would write, with this University of Washington Bothell template and three other sample graduate school recommendation letters from Penn State’s John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.
Here's another template, provided by my own brother who is a professor.
It is my great pleasure to strongly recommend [NAME] for ZZZ. [NAME] is a highly intelligent, creative and affable individual. I have been particularly impressed by his curiosity and problem solving abilities. He is able to tackle complex projects with little supervision, works extremely well with other people, including students, computing professionals and faculty at the University of XXX, and has consistently demonstrated the most admirable judgment and work habits. Indeed, I have come to rely heavily on [NAME]'s abilities, judgment, and creativity in all aspects of our work at the XXX Project.
I have formed my high regard for [NAME] over the almost ## years he has worked with me as a computer programmer and developer for the XXX Project at the University of XXX. As a research and development organization in the general area of digital humanities, the XXX Project requires considerable interdisciplinary capabilities, which include a solid background in computer science and computational linguistics to an understanding of the methodologies and objectives of research in the humanities and allied disciplines. [NAME] began working part-time on the XXX Project while he was a student in the College in [year]. He very quickly became one of the students to whom I would assign important and high profile tasks, including development work on a collaborative project with XXX as well as the XXX Project at the University of XXX. [NAME] began working full-time at the Development Center in [year], with his primary assignment to continue his work at XXX Project, and has been an important asset to the team ever since.
During this time, [NAME] has worked on many projects and problems, ranging from system administration to implementation of key components of the project’s open source full text analysis system, most notably in designing and implementing significant improvements in user interface systems. In many ways, [NAME] is far more of a collaborator than an employee. In the past couple of years, it has been my pleasure to work very closely with [NAME] on several large development projects, including XXX, our open source machine learning extensions to the original, and we have just completed a preliminary release of another extension which supports identification of similar passages in large collections of text data. He has also served as the lead developer and project leader for the XXX and XXX, a large scale collection of many different types of resources.
[NAME] is particularly adept at resolving complicated problems that arise in humanities computing and implementation and text analysis systems and applications for non-western writing systems. He is very highly motivated and a self-starter, often proposing and implementing new ideas and approaches on his own initiative. [NAME] was, for example, instrumental in leading our research and development efforts in machine learning and text data mining and has also been responsible for all of our work in computational linguistics. [NAME] is an excellent writer and gives very solid, organized and clear presentations at conferences. Indeed, it has been my pleasure to co-author a number of papers and presentations with [NAME], in which he has repeatedly demonstrated his solid intellectual judgment, convivial collaborative work style, and timely awareness of deadlines.
Of the many fine students and employees I have worked with at the XXX Project at the University of XXX, [NAME] is quite possibly the best. He combines wide ranging intellectual curiosity and creativity, high levels of technical competence, outstanding work habits, and an ability to work exceptionally well with others that is quite extraordinary. I believe that his intellectual capacities and personal qualities make [NAME] an outstanding candidate. He has my highest recommendation, without reservation.