How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

Asking a professor for a letter of recommendation can be an anxiety-producing experience. However, if you follow the protocol below, you can rest assured that your actions are professional and appropriate. Since you are asking a professor to take hours out of his/her life to help you, do not waste the recommender’s time by being disorganized or thoughtless. While this handout is tailored for academic letters, these guidelines apply for asking for non-academic recommendations as well.

  • 2 months before recommendation is needed

    Decide which professor(s) might write a recommendation on your behalf. As part of your considerations, ask yourself:

    • Has this professor seen my recent work?
    • Have I taken more than one class with this professor?
    • Does this professor know my strengths from experiences both inside and outside the classroom?
    • Have I done well in this professor’s courses?
    • Have I always acted professionally and ethically in regards to this professor and her or his class?
    • Can this professor comment upon my intellectual development and achievement of skills?

    If you answered yes to all of these questions, ask this professor.

  • 5-6 weeks before recommendation is needed

    Ask the professor either in office hours or by email if the professor is comfortable writing to recommend you for your given context, e.g. graduate school, a job, a scholarship.

  • At least a month before the recommendation is needed

    If the professor agrees to your request, visit the professor during her/his office hours to discuss your specific plans. During that meeting, prepare a folder for the professor that includes:

    • Your transcript;
    • Your resume, if you have one;
    • Copies of work (papers, projects) you have written for this professor with his/her comments;
    • A working draft of a creative or critical sample to be included in the graduate application so that professor can see a recent snapshot of your  work;
    • A statement of purpose/your application essay. Having at least a working draft of your application essay allows the professor to specifically address your audience and to craft the recommendation to fit your needs. It also shows that you’re serious and your behavior is professional;
    • A list of dates and addresses, with due dates for various letters; indicate which recommendations are to be done on-line and which in paper.

    CPD has a helpful form for requesting letter of recommendation. Some professors may find that information useful.

    N.B. Some professors will want this information bundled in a paper folder. Some will prefer it all sent electronically. Ask the professor which s/he prefers. Regardless of the format, pass on all the requisite information one time and one time only.

    A word about recommendation forms:

    • If you are requesting a paper recommendation, make sure you have filled out the information you must submit and included envelopes and postage.
    • If you are requesting on-line submissions, make sure that you register the professor with the recommended portfolio/application service.
  • After asking for the recommendation but before it is due

    If by any chance you no longer need the recommendation, email the professor immediately. Professors spend weekends, holidays, and late nights writing recommendations. It stings to come into school on the Monday after to hear a casual comment like, “Oh, I changed my mind. I am not applying to _____.” Remember, you might want this professor to write a letter for a job or another opportunity later; therefore you do not want to burn a bridge because you made your professor do unnecessary work when you failed to let him or her know of your change of plans.

  • One week before the recommendation is due

    You may remind the professor via email. But please only send one reminder.

    If the deadline passes and the professor has not submitted the recommendation, a follow-up email or visit to the professor’s office is in order.

  • After the recommendation is written

    Thank the professor. Some professors welcome email thank you notes, while others find them impersonal. Take into account the nature of the work that you asked of your professor. If s/he helped you with six graduate school applications, you will want to thank the professor in a more personal way than a quick email. Equally important, let the recommender know the outcome of your application. Do not allow rumor, or worse, the college website, to let the professor know of your accomplishments—when he or she put effort in on your behalf. And if you are rejected, a thank you for the reference opens opportunity for conversation.

Final Reminder

You want to make it easy for your recommender to strongly recommend you. Act professionally and politely. You may need to call upon that professor again and again.