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How to ask for a recommendation letter

29 March 2011

Writing a letter of recommendation often requires a lot of work.

That’s why it is very important for students to understand the process involved when asking for such a reference. Students should choose their letter of recommendations writers thoughtfully and be mindful when soliciting the support of their professors, counselors, and mentors.

Most importantly, students should not procrastinate.

Which professors or counselors should I ask for a recommendation letter?

Ask someone who knows you well.

Often, students will want to ask a professor whom has given them an “A” or a “B” in a course, or a faculty member whom has taught them in several courses for a recommendation letter.

However, please keep in mind that the most powerful letters convey a deep care  for the student as well as strong admiration for his/her academic work; in other words, letters that are lukewarm in praise or concern, although well-written, rarely impact the reader on a gut level.

So  find someone — a professor, a counselor, or mentor — that you have built a relationship with and simply ask that person, “Do you feel we have worked closely enough for you to write a good recommendation?”

Tip: If you are taking a class with a professor right now and would like to have him/her write you a letter, be sure to talk with that professor outside of class about your academic interests and goals, and let that instructor get to know you!

When should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Ask for one as early as possible or at least two weeks in advance.

More often than not, students will wait until the very last minute. Not only will that come off as unprofessional, but it will also put the letter of recommendation writer in a difficult position: having to turn you down, or not having enough time to write a strong letter of support.

How should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Ask for support in person.

Do not do it by way of email or voicemail. Instead, students should approach their would-be letter of recommendation writer with care and concern. Ask him or her for an appointment to discuss an important issue, rather than just dropping by their office or mentioning it in the hallway. Make sure to cover the following points:

  • Highlight the course you took with the professor, and what grade was earned.
  • Why you need the recommendation letter.
  • Deadline for the recommendation letter.

Students should be able to provide information about the scholarship, internship, or academic program that they are applying for (e.g. deadlines), as well as offer their resumes or at least a statement of why they are applying for a specific opportunity, such as:

  • Need to continue building professional network
  • Financial emergency and need for aid
  • Life passion and/or academic interests
  • Career goals

Tip: If you are asking a former instructor, and quite some time has passed since you last took his or her course, then you should consider giving the instructor examples of the work you did for his or her class (e.g. research papers and/or exams).

As a courtesy, students should also include stamped and addressed envelopes for your supporter to use in order to send the letter.

How do I follow up with my recommenders?

A thank you note is an effective way to keep that relationship strong.

Students will often need many recommendation letters because they are applying for various schools, scholarships, or internship/work opportunities.

Therefore, it is important to keep those relationships with your supporters strong. Also, a thank you note will allow you to gently remind the supporter to mail the letter of recommendation by any specified deadlines.

Be sure to check in with the school, program, or potential employer to ensure that the letter was actually received.

Filed under: Student Tool Kit

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