Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

 

Many of my academic friends are dissatisfied with the way students and former students make requests for letters of recommendation. Students are often not informative enough in their initial requests, so that a long correspondence must follow before the professor can even decide if a letter from them would be appropriate. I started offering the following advice to all of my students, and even making a little semi-creative writing assignment out of it for first-year students. I have been happy with the requests I have gotten from those students in the years that followed. Feel free to use this page with your students, if you like. (Please do not republish this content without attribution.)

A savvy request for a letter of recommendation will empower the professor to say very specific things about the student. If the professor is pressed for time, this informative kind of request may serve as a helpful template for the recommendation letter. Write a request for recommendation in the same style you hope the professor will use to write the recommendation itself elegant, organized, detailed, and confident.

To prepare:

  1. Cultivate a good working relationship with professors both in and out of your area of study. Develop a reputation for honesty, punctuality, and self-improvement.
  2. Identify at least three full-time professors who have seen and evaluated your most mature work.
  3. If you don't have one, create an email account from the name your professor will recognize as yours.

To write:

  1. Dear Professor [Name]. Even if you are used to calling this professor something less formal, this is a formal request.
  2. Start with a pleasant, brief, culturally appropriate, non-religious seasonal greeting. (Religious greetings are acceptable if you are certain that you share that tradition with the professor.)
  3. Remind the professor when you last took their class, and what class it was, as you briefly catch them up on your work life and aspirations.
  4. Explain the program or position you are applying to and why it is important to you to do that work. What do you hope to learn or contribute? (Avoid references to family expectations or money. Professors are generally people who have rejected both.)
  5. If you are applying for a fellowship or you have financial support for a graduate program, mention it.
  6. Explain why the course you took with this professor is relevant to your future work in this position or program. Avoid flattery and stick to substance. Mention skills you learned and a project you worked on.
  7. Explain why this professor's letter is particularly helpful. What would they be able to say about you that fits in with what other recommendation writers will contribute?
  8. Tell your professor how to submit the letter, to whom, and when. Give a month's notice if possible. If you are running behind, be clear and apologetic. Explain the deadline clearly. If it is submitted to a dossier service like Interfolio, explain how the letter will be used. If it will be chopped up by a placement office, say so in advance.
  9. Attach your résumé/CV and the best paper/project you wrote for that professor, and tell the professor what the attachments are.
  10. Express gratitude, and close on a warm note. Read the email aloud, proofread it carefully, check the address, give it a clear and searchable subject line, and send.