How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

Student applying for a program

What Is A Letter Of Recommendation?

The purpose of the recommendation letter is to give potential employers or education programs a chance to understand your assets on a more personal level. Whereas resumes can all look the same from person to person, letters of recommendation make each individual stand out by highlighting your personality and what you uniquely bring to the table.

If you’re applying for a college, university, or a scholarship, chances are that you will be asked to provide a letter of recommendation. Most institutions may ask for up to three recommendation letters, and these are weighed heavily in the admission process for prestigious institutions.

Employers, however, are not as likely to ask for a recommendation letter. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be useful. Sending a recommendation letter, even if it isn’t required, can make you stand out among the numerous other applicants. Out of a pile of resumes that all blend together, a recommendation letter can make your resume more noticeable.

Who to Ask for an Academic Reference

People familiar with your academic work and performance are excellent choices to ask for recommendations as you begin your career. You may not have a lot of related work experience in your chosen field, and your professors can speak about the knowledge and skills you have demonstrated that will help you succeed in the industry you are targeting.

Although they may have a very positive general impression of you, the most convincing references will require them to give a fair amount of detail to support their positive assertions. You can help them to accomplish this by supplying some of this detail when you make your request.

Prepare a Summary Document

Prepare a summary document that lists each course you took with the professor and references any papers or projects that you successfully completed. Include the grade for individual projects as well as the overall grade for the course.

Provide Your Resume

Share your resume to give the professor a summary of your extracurricular achievements and your work experience. Describe in writing the types of jobs you’re looking for, and the qualifications that you are focusing on. A copy of the job posting will make it easier for your professor to tailor their reference to the position.

Include a Cover Letter

Including a cover letter can help with this process. If possible, point to specific classes or projects where you may have showcased some of the core skills you would like the recommendation to emphasize.

Request a Meeting If Possible

If you’re still in school or living near campus, try to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the professor. Ask if the faculty member would be comfortable endorsing you as a candidate for the types of jobs you’re applying to, and then ask if you can stop in during office hours or chat over a cup of coffee to discuss the matter further. Then, follow up with an email or letter to your prospective faculty reference with the attached documents.

Be Clear About What You Want

Make sure you state precisely what you are asking them to do, such as to write a general letter of recommendation for your credential file, to write a recommendation for a specific job, or seek their permission to list them as a reference.

Give as Much Notice as You Can

Give your faculty members as much advance notice as possible. Toward the end of the semester, they may be busy grading papers and exams, as well as writing recommendations for many other students.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation via Email Tips

Follow up. After sending your query, follow up with the recommender after a reasonable amount of time. Keep in contact before they submit the reference, and follow up again after it’s been submitted.

Thank them throughout the process for the effort of writing a letter for you. Remember, they took valuable time out of their schedule to accommodate your success or increase your chances of getting a job.

Don’t ask for too much. If you’re asking someone to serve as a reference, it’s best to avoid also asking for a recommendation letter. It’s a lot to ask of one person, and having a reference and recommendation letter from the same person makes each count for a little less.

Choose an impressive person (that you actually know). We know you’re tempted to go for the highest-up person you ever said “hello” to, but it’s always better to select someone who knows you well over someone with an impressive title who can’t do more than write you a generic recommendation letter.

Make it easy for them. Imagine you received an email out of the blue asking you to write a few hundred words on a topic. Your first reaction would probably be a bit of stress; “I don’t know what to write” would likely be your biggest concern, and it’ll be the same concern of your potential recommender.

With that in mind, make their job easy. Don’t include all of this in the initial email you send, but, if they agree, be prepared to send them another email outlining exactly what you’d like them to write about. Distill the job description down into important skills and qualities you’d like highlighted and send them a copy of your resume and cover letter.

Be clear about your timeline. Don’t be vague about when you need the letter. Unless it’s a general recommendation letter that you’d just like to keep in your back pocket for when the time arises, there’s probably a deadline involved. Whatever your deadline is, move it up one or two days for your recommender, to give a bit of cushion time if things don’t work out.

Be graceful if they decline. Requesting a recommendation letter doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get one. There’s always a possibility that the recommender will be too busy, or simply uninterested, to write a professional recommendation for you.

Always have a network of people that you can consider for recommendation letters. There are multiple supervisors out there who have excellent things to say about your skills and will be more than willing to write you a letter of recommendation.

Final Thoughts

When submitting a school application, a letter of recommendation will usually be required. Beyond needing a good recommendation for your college applications, though, they can be very helpful in getting your job application pushed to the top of the pile.

It is good practice to ask individuals who have supervised or evaluated you in an academic or professional setting. Avoid personal references (family, friends, etc.) unless the target application specifically indicates that would be acceptable.

Approach your evaluators early on by giving them a minimum of two weeks notice to fulfill your request. By taking this approach you are more likely to receive a favorable response to your request, while also increasing the likelihood of receiving a quality and personalized letter.

Always try to meet face to face to request a letter of recommendation, but if this is not possible send an email and follow up with a phone call. Be sure to explain why you are asking this individual to write you a letter, and be specific when explaining if there is anything in particular you hope they could cover in the letter. This will help the evaluator focus their comments on what is most relevant for your target opportunity.

It’s important not to underestimate the power of a strong letter of recommendation especially since so many companies are now hesitant to respond to requests for references and often have policies against providing anything more than a verification of employment. I think it’s also helpful to assist the person writing the letter know what you as the job seeker consider important to mention, for example highlighting a special project you contributed to, showcasing your leadership skills, or commending your willingness to go the extra mile for a client.

Choosing the “right” person to write your Letter of Recommendation is vital. This gives insight into the applicant’s ability to communicate and make sound decisions based on the person(s) selected to write a recommendation.


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