Asking a professor for a letter of recommendation can be nerve-wracking. It’s always awkward to ask for letters of recommendation, especially if you don’t know them well! But, your job or graduate school may insist on receiving this letter.
As a professor, I get requests to write recommendation letters all the time. I like to do it, because after all, I got into this career because I want to help to see my students succeed.
To ask for the letter or recommendation you should keep a few things in mind: Which professor to choose? Should I get them a thank you gift? And how should I write the email? This article will help you navigate the etiquette behind requesting a letter from a professor.
Tips for Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
1. Ask as Soon as Possible
If you can lay some groundwork early on it’ll really help you out. So here’s when to ask for a letter of recommendation:
As soon as your potential employer asks for a letter of recommendation, send a quick email to your professor and let them know. It only needs to be a small, polite email that lets them know that you have found a job or graduate school that you’re interested in and would love their support.
The more advance notice you give them, the better. You don’t want to be squeezed up against a due date. So send them that email – Now! I’ve provided a few email templates at the end of this post that you can copy and alter to make sure you cover all the important bits.
b) At Graduation
Occasionally, I have students email me once they’ve graduated to let me know they really felt they got along with me well, and wanted to see if I could write a letter for them.
These students are about to go on the job hunt or are about to search for a graduate school and want to line up some letters of recommendation in advance. Clever strategy!
This is a really good strategy because you can get them to write a general letter that would work for any future employer. This prevents you from having to repeat the request for every employer.
c) During the Course
It’s best to lay some ground work. If you have some time and are still in your final semester at university, I have some important recommendations for you:
- Try to make sure your professor knows your name (office hours is a great time to get to know your professor);
- Aim to ensure your professor is impressed by your attitude.
Firstly, to ensure your lecturer or professor knows your name, make sure you make good contributions during class. Next, I recommend emailing your professor with relevant questions about once every two weeks.
I have a few students each semester who email me friendly, relevant questions about once every two weeks and I always respond. I also end up knowing them the best and respecting their commitment to their studies.
See related post: How to impress your Professor.
Then, straight after you hand in your final assessment piece, ask your professor in person or email them that day. Try to secure a general letter that’ll work for any future employer. This is the best strategy because the professor has you fresh in their mind. They’ve just taught you, so they remember everything about you!
2. Choose your Professor Wisely
The TL;DR answer? Ask the one who knows you best and will be able to attest to your personality. The long answer? Select a professor based on these criteria:
a) Choose a Helpful Professor
I share an office with two other professors.
One of them stands at arm’s length to the students. He teaches, he does his research and he goes home. When students send him emails, he sends pretty curt (short) answers and usually tells them to go figure it out for themselves.
The other is a professor who has dedicated her life to her students. She has coffee with them, books one-to-one tutorials with them, and celebrates their successes with them.
The second one is the one who will craft recommendation letters that are meaningful. She’ll think about your strengths and highlight them for the employer. The second one will write form recommendation letters outlining what grade you got in his course. It won’t have a personal touch, and the letter won’t stand out amongst the crowd.
Choose the professor who seems to care about their students. Their letter will be more personal and more powerful.
b) Choose a Professor who Knows You Well
You’ll need to get a letter of recommendation from a lecturer or professor who actually knows a little bit about you. I’ve had students ask for letters of recommendation and I couldn’t have picked them from a crowd.
If your professor knows a little bit about you, they’ll be able to make the letter more personal. They can actually talk about your traits, whether you make a big effort in class and how punctual you are.
If the professor doesn’t know you too well, you’ll be stuck with a bland letter of recommendation that simply mentions your grade and that’s about all!
c) Choose a Professor with a Reputation
The last thing to think about is getting a professor whose name might carry some weight.
Keep in mind whether the prospective employer might know their name or what contributions they have made to your field. Has the professor written an influential book, been on TV, or been an active member of the community?
At the very least, consider their rank: a tenured full professor will outrank an associate professor, who will outrank an assistant professor or lecturer. In England, Australia and New Zealand, we usually use the term ‘lecturer’ rather than ‘professor’. The ranks go: lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor and professor. A ‘professor’ is much more prestigious in England than in North America, because it’s significantly harder to achieve this title.
3. If you Don’t Know a Professor Well
If you’ve chosen to email a professor you don’t know well and ask them for a letter of recommendation, you should try to do the most to help them write their letter.
Here are some recommendations I have for you:
- Choose one of the email templates provided at the end of this article;
- Attach to that email template their feedback to your assessment pieces. They’ll want to see that feedback to let them refresh their memory;
- Attach a transcript of your grades across the university, if possible;
- When you contact your professor via email, try to include the email as a ‘Reply’ to a previous email chain you’ve had with them. This will enable them to scroll down and see what previous communication you’ve had together. You’ll help to jog their memory a little.
- Make sure you provide a personal anecdote from the classes, such as: “I wanted to get your letter of recommendation because I found your classes the most beneficial for me. I felt I contributed well to those classes and the class where we played the quiz about [something] / watched the videos about [something] was a lot of fun.” This will help them write about how you were engaged with the content in the classes.
4. Should I Email or Ask in Person?
Personally, I like a student to do both if possible.
I like a student to send an email that:
- Asks whether I can write a letter of recommendation, then
- Suggests that we meet up during office hours if I want to talk about what to write, then
- Provides as many details or suggestions as possible.
I don’t like getting approached after class about it without prior warning. I prefer being prepared for this sort of discussion and organizing an office hours time for discussion. A preliminary request via email saying “Is this OK? Can we meet up?” works well.
Personally, I’m also okay with a student just sending the email without arranging to meet up during office hours. Sometimes I’m frankly too busy to have meetings with my students. So just contact me via email and ask for the letter of recommendation – It’ll be fine.
But, that in-person follow-up is a nice personal touch.
5. What to Put in the Email
I mean really easy.
Your lecturer or professor is a very busy teacher. They’re doing you a pretty big favor. So, make it as easy as possible.
Let your professor know as many details as possible. Also provide:
- Job Description: Make sure you share with them the title and description of the job you’re applying for;
- Assignment Feedback: Send them the feedback they gave on your assignments to jog their memory about your strengths and weaknesses;
- Memorable Interactions: Jog their memory about any memorable interactions you’ve had together;
- Transcript: Send them your transcript;
- Letter Template: If there’s a template for the letter of recommendation provided by the potential employer, send it to the teacher;
- Stamped Envelope: If they need to post it, also provide a stamped envelope. Don’t waste their time making them go to town to buy stamps and envelopes just for you;
- Postal Address: Don’t forget that if they have to post the recommendation letter, give them the postal address!
- Instructions: Let them know that all those things are attached to make their job easy.
- Due Date:Let them know the due date so they know when to get it to the person it needs to get to.
6. What if they ask for Money?
If your professor asks for money in order to write the letter of recommendation, I strongly advise you to say ‘No.’
It’s an abuse of power. Even if a professor says “I need to cover expenses”, say No.
You can offer to provide paper and a stamped envelope if need be, but don’t exchange money.
A professor who asks for money off a student is corrupt. It’s an abuse of power. They’re in the business for the wrong thing. It’s unethical. End of story.
I take a hard line on this. I don’t even think a professor should ask a student to buy their textbook. It’s coercive. It’s wrong.
Seek out another professor.
7. Send a Thank You Email.
Lastly, it’s important that you let your professor know your appreciation. You should always follow up to let the teacher know that you appreciate their efforts.
Here’s a few things you can do:
- Send a thank you email after you know they have sent the letter of recommendation off.
- Even better, send them a personal hand written letter and a box of chocolates or gift card. I’ve gotten this a few times and I always thought it was the sweetest thing.
- When you find out whether you got the job or accepted into graduate school, send them another email to let them know how it went.
Asking a professor for a recommendation letter can be nerve wracking. But professors are used to getting requests for recommendation letters. We get a whole stack of them for people wanting to get into graduate school, for example. So don’t be shy about asking … but be prepared to be rejected and make it as easy as possible for them to write the letter for maximum success.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]