How should you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation?
By Isabella Lanza, PhD
First and foremost, this is intended to help undergrads at typical large universities, where close relationships with faculty are few and far between. When I was an undergrad at a very small liberal arts college (think 2,000 students small), it was quite easy to identify which professors could write you good letters and many of these professors expected you to ask. But what to do when you have to ask a professor and you haven’t had much interaction with him/her outside class hours? Here are some DOs and DON’Ts to think about as you prepare to ask a professor for a recommendation letter.
- Identify all potential recommenders.
You should try to have about twice as many potential recommenders in mind than you actually need in order to give you some wiggle room (and less anxiety) if someone does not agree to write you a letter.
- Create a most-to-least preferred list.
Write down the names of those that you would like as a potential recommender. Now rank order those names in terms of whom you think will write you the strongest letter and ALSO who has the highest professional status for the programs you have chosen. Considering the status a recommender has in the field you’re planning to go into is important, and something that gets overlooked frequently. When I was a graduate student instructor I was asked many times to write letters of recommendation, and had to explain to students that my recommendation would weigh much less than a recommendation from a tenure-track faculty with research in the area of interest.
- Ask in an orderly fashion.
If you’re going to ask through email, don’t just send out the same email to all your potential recommenders at once. What if they all say yes? Ask one by one using your preference list. If you receive a no from someone early on, this will give you a chance to re-evaluate your method of asking before you move further down the list.
- Timing is everything.
Asking 6 weeks- 3 months ahead of time is generally the time frame professors like when planning out recommendation letters. Remember the less time you give a professor to write you a letter, the more likely they will say no to your request. Social psychology tells us that people are more likely to say yes to requests no matter what the nature if the task is far into the future.
- Take the time to either write a convincing email to your recommenders or visit their office hours/make an appointment to discuss the possibility of having them write a letter.
A two sentence email asking for a letter or a 30-second request made in person after class when other students have questions are not appropriate ways to ask for a recommendation. Show that you are serious about your future academic and career goals by asking for a personal meeting or coming to office hours to explore the possibility. If you can’t speak to the professor in person, write a thoughtful email. Either way, make sure you present 1) your career goals; 2) programs/school you anticipate applying to; 3) application deadlines; 4) WHY you think the professor could provide you with a good letter.
- Identify 2-3 strengths that you would like your recommenders to point out in their letters.
The first time I brought this up to my professional development students a few of them stated, ‘But you can’t tell a recommender what to put in your letter!’ Well I’m here to let you know that not only can you, but you should. The key is to present strengths, abilities, or other positive features about yourself that the professor has actually observed. Professors will appreciate that you are identifying a few positive attributes that they can expand on in their letter. With many students to attend to, our minds need a little help remembering all the things that make you great. Of course, be careful not to overstate your capabilities or strengths. I have found very few students overestimate themselves, so don’t worry too much about appearing arrogant.
- Prepare a document/package with all the information your professor needs.
Whether it’s over email or a hard copy, prepare one document/package your professor can quickly reference. This should include a list of the schools and programs you are applying to with deadlines, along with physical addresses of the programs (needed for the letter heading). Also, include a brief bio with career objectives and strengths you would like highlighted. Last, make sure you include all the information needed to send out the letters (weblinks or envelopes already addressed and stamped).
- Ask the professor ahead of time if he/she will want a reminder when the deadline approaches.
If you are going to feel anxious about the possibility that letters are not going to be sent out on time, ask your professor early on in the process if he/she would like email deadline reminders. Setting this up early on will make your life easier when you remember that your professor wanted a reminder email vs. just sending a reminder and hoping you don’t come off as annoying.
- Send the professor a thank you card.
A simple thank you card (not email!) can go a long way with anyone, especially someone that has devoted his/her career to teaching and mentoring others. Include a sentence or two stating your appreciation for their time and effort given to not just the letter but also enhancing your learning experience. Your legacy will live on longer when you express your gratitude with an actual handwritten card. Also, if you are going to give the professor a gift (the thank you card is completely sufficient but I know some students insist on gifts) wait until all letters have been sent; otherwise, it is an ethical dilemma.
- Keep in touch.
Besides letting professors know the outcome of the application process, send an email every now and then to let them know what you have accomplished professionally. Professors gain a deep sense of satisfaction knowing former students are achieving their career goals.
- Don’t just ask a professor because you received an A in his/her class.
With grade inflation running rampant, half or maybe more than half of your peers are receiving As. You really need to think about what makes you stand out from your peers in the class (or situation) the professor knows you from. If you don’t stand out in some way, this is a problem.
- Don’t ask a professor if he/she may not know who you are.
Yes, this happens. If you’re not sure if this applies to you, that’s a red flag right there. But if you want to confirm, try to visit the professor’s office hours and see his/her response to you. Is it an ‘Oh hi! How are you doing?’ or ‘ Hello. How can I help you?’ You’ll be able to tell right away if they have no clue.
- Don’t ask a professor just because he/she is nice or cool.
Big mistake. I’m known to be a very nice and friendly professor, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to write you a good letter of recommendation. I’m judging you on your performance and effort. A nice/cool professor may be super friendly to ALL students, but behind closed office doors he/she is only writing superb recommendations for a few students. Keep this in mind: looks can be deceiving.
- Don’t ask a professor if you never said a word in class.
This should be self-explanatory, but apparently it’s not. If you were in a class with 40 or fewer students and never said a word in class or to your professor, the professor is going to assume you were not as engaged in the class as those who did speak up or came regularly to office hours. If you are shy about speaking class, visit the professor’s office hours more often. Also, discuss the reasons you are not as outspoken – you’ll be seen as making a greater effort to be an engaged student.
- Don’t ask for a letter to be written with less than three weeks notice.
I tell my students in my professional developmental seminar that poor planning will lead to an irate professor writing your letter. He/she may think you’re smart, ambitious, and ready for grad school, but your lack of planning also suggests you may not be as serious or prepared for what’s to come. There is a general consensus that 6 weeks – 3 months is an ideal amount of time to give professors notice that you would like them to write a letter for you. I personally prefer 2 months notice and no less than 3 weeks notice.
- Don’t ask for a letter to be written during finals.
No, just don’t. Do I even have to state why? You know how you’re going crazy in a sleep deprived state studying for 4 finals, 3 papers, and getting in some work shifts? Professors are also under a mountain of grading and stress to get other things done related to research or departmental tasks. There is no worse time to ask, so don’t even try!
- Don’t ask too early!
This is an odd don’t. It’s an issue I didn’t think I would ever encounter, but in the last year I’ve had two students ask me to write letters for applications 1-2 years away. I’m not sure what the cutoff is for asking ‘too early’ but I’m going to say past 6 months is a bit odd. If you’re close to the professor it might not be weird to ask way ahead of time, but for the majority of you breathe and remember that ‘patience is a virtue’.
- Don’t send an email for each letter to be written.
You are likely to be one of several students your professor is writing letters for in a given semester, so keep your communication with the professor minimal. One email (or one packet) detailing all the information needed to write and send out the letters is greatly appreciated. It’s great to have just one email or document to go back to for each student. Be as organized as possible. It will go a long way and make your letter that much better, especially when your professor is comparing you to less organized peers.
- Don’t be a stalker.
Yes, you want to make sure your professor is sending those letters out and on time(!), but tone down the frequency and severity of reminders. One email reminder a few days before the deadline is ok if you think the professor would appreciate a reminder. Some professors find them annoying, or even insulting. I like reminders, but only ONE. You could also just check-in once and kindly ask if anything else is needed to finish the letter. It’s a gentle way of reminding the professor to write and send out the letter. Bottom line: don’t overdo it!
- Don’t do the ‘wham, bam thank you ma’am’.
I can’t remember the last time a student wrote me about the outcome of his/her application process. I want to know what happened! Even if it’s not positive news, it’s still wise to send an update email to a recommender, especially if you are going to ask for a letter again. (2018 update: I’m happy to say most students now make contact with me to let me know the outcome of their application process. I hope this is a sign that students are becoming more savvy in sustaining professional relationships.)
We hope these tips will help as you prepare to ask for recommendation letters. Good luck!