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How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Advice for college students and recent graduates.

Key points

  • An important life skill is learning how to effectively seek out references.
  • It’s best to let professors know your goals and give them plenty of notice for your request.
  • When you hear back about an opportunity, send an update to the people who supported you.

As many students have just recently graduated from college and current college students are busy this summer with internships and summer jobs, it's a perfect time to be thinking about the best way to secure strong references for the future. As a professor for almost 30 years, I share here some pointers and tips for how to do this, with a special focus on asking professors for letters.

An important life skill is learning how to effectively seek out references. It might seem obvious, but it’s really not. It’s good to have a few professors who know your work, both your performance and your work ethic, and ideally who know you in and out of the classroom and can speak about you in as multidimensional a way as possible. You may need recommendations for things like special scholarships, internships, residential life positions, transferring schools, jobs, and graduate school. So here are some tips to guide you through the process:

Source: The Jopwell Collection/Unsplash
Source: The Jopwell Collection/Unsplash
  • It’s important to talk candidly with prospective references about the extent to which they feel that they can properly support your candidacy.
  • It’s best to ask professors of classes in which you earned a B or better.
  • If you’re applying to transfer schools or eventually need recommendations for graduate school, have your resume and personal statement ready to send to people writing in support of your application so they have the information necessary at their fingertips to craft the best letter.
  • It’s really important to let potential references know exactly what you’re seeking to accomplish, where you’re applying, and the names of the programs, and be sure to let them know exactly what you need from them.
  • Sometimes students looking for a job think that they need reference letters when, in fact, they typically don’t—but they do need to be able to provide contact information of people that prospective employers can call or email.
  • Students distinguish themselves when they give faculty and other professional references ample notice about needing recommendations, preferably between two to four weeks. There’s nothing worse than receiving a request for recommendations or a phone call from an employer before the student has even reached out to let me know.
  • When submitting your application for transferring or for graduate school, always waive your right to see your letters. This is because most people want to be able to freely express themselves. Some professors will send you a copy of what they’ve written so you have it for your records and because they believe students should get to read what has been said about them; I always do this, and if I didn’t feel I could, I wouldn’t agree to write the letter.
  • Send a thank-you card.
  • A professor may have to turn down your request whether it’s the constraints of their own schedules or a concern that they won’t be able to recommend you as strongly as possible due to not knowing you well enough or due to your performance in their class. Nevertheless, if they took the time to respond to you, you should send them a brief note thanking them for getting back to you and considering this. Any lack of follow-through on your part reinforces reasons for not recommending, and if you wind up having this professor again you’ll be glad you never dropped the ball because they may keep you in mind for other opportunities.
  • As soon as you’ve heard a decision one way or the other, send an update to the people who supported you, as it’s tasteless for them to first find out on social media. They’ll want to know the outcome and if you got what they helped you to achieve. It’s thrilling for them to share in your joy.
More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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