Dear Professor X,

Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Dear Professor,
I am applying for graduate school. The online application system requested that I put in 3 individuals who might be willing to write me a letter of recommendation. I listed your name, so you can expect to receive an email from them soon. If you cannot do this, I understand. But, hopefully you can. It will only take like 5 minutes because it’s an online form. Oh and, it is due in two days.

No, no and no. Your letters of recommendation are critical as they could play a significant role in your acceptance into graduate school or success on the job market. As such, you should approach professors or others who you are asking to write you a letter with thoughtfulness, organization, and gratitude.

A few tips….

Carefully choose your letter writers. Individuals who know you well and care about your future will likely write the best letters for you. Asking a mentor or professors with whom you’ve worked closely with are your best choices as they can speak to your academic and career potential. Professors whom you’ve had multiple classes and conversations with would also be good choices for these reasons. Others whom you’ve interacted with, but have not worked for or taken classes with may be “ok” to ask for a character reference. You could also consider asking research or teaching assistants if you haven’t had the chance to get to know professors. If you are not at the point where you need a letter yet, it’s good to start building professional relationships with these individuals now. You will likely need at least 3 people to write a letter for you, so start thinking about who you could ask now.

Use email etiquette when approaching professionals and consider asking in person. Be brief and to the point when emailing a professor or other professional about a letter of recommendation. Ask them if they would be willing to write the letter in the first few sentences, put “applying for grad school – letters of recommendation” or something like this in the subject line, and make sure there are no typos. See our Email Etiquette or Avoiding Email Train Wreck articles for more on email etiquette. It may benefit you to, first, stop by their office to ask them if they believe they know you well enough to write the letter. Then, you could follow-up with an email to them if they say, “yes.”

Provide them with all of the information they need. From your professor’s perspective, there’s likely nothing more annoying than to have to email the student back and ask for all of the information that they didn’t provide….make it easy for your letter writers. Last month, I received emails from 4 students asking for letters of recommendation. They all used different approaches:

  • Student A: Sent me an email similar to the one above, telling me she’d listed my name and it would only take me 5 minutes to fill out the form. She assumed that 5 minutes of my time was not a big deal. Moreover, anyone that can complete a form, write a letter, and attach it in 5 minutes, is likely writing a terrible letter.
  • Student B: I had her in 1 class and had supervised her on a research project. She was kind and personable. But, she was also non responsive to emails, missed most of her deadlines, and received a lower grade because of this.
  • Student C: I also had in just 1 class, and my interactions with her were brief. She had asked me at the time if I might be willing to write her a letter. I told her to contact me when it was closer to the time that she needed it (because she didn’t have anything she was applying for that year/semester). Thus, when she contacted me, it was about 6 months later. Her email just said she was hoping I’d still be willing to write her a letter and asked if I’d received her resume. This made no sense to me as 1) she had never sent her resume to me (I went back through old emails and SPAM to see if I had missed something) and 2) She didn’t say what she was applying for or send any additional information. When I emailed her back and asked her to provide more information, she never replied. Huh?
  • Student D: Asked me in person several months ago if I’d be willing to write her letters for graduate school applications. I’ve worked with her a lot in the last year and was excited to get to write her a letter. She, then, sent me an email with a packet of information 2 months before all of her applications were due. The packet included her resume, an unofficial transcript, and a document that listed where she was applying, contact information for who the letters should be addressed to, due dates, and an explanation of the process for submitting each of the letters (because each University/College asked for something slightly different). In this document, she also listed a summary of how long I’d known her and in what capacity, as well as the different qualities she possessed that she thought I could speak to based on my interactions with her. Wow! I was so impressed with her attention to detail and the time that she’d spent putting that packet together for me and her other letter writers. I knew that she was amazing, but this was over the top stellar from my perspective, especially after having a few annoying experiences.

So, who do you think I wrote the best letter for? Whose letter do you think I spent the most time on? You got it – Student D. I wrote an “ok” letter for Student A as I’d known her for a long time and believed that she just needed help on “asking for letters etiquette,” but I still thought she’d be a good employee for the company to which she was applying to work. I told Student B I didn’t feel comfortable writing her a letter and Student C, I still haven’t heard back from.

Have a mentor or someone from the career services office help you develop your resume before you send it. Sometimes when students send me their resume to help me to prepare their letter of recommendation, I know that their chances are slim based on how they’ve organized it. There is likely a career services office (or multiple offices) on your campus that could help you with your resume. Utilize their services. Ask a mentor to also review it. For tips on resume writing, see 15 Fast Tips for Developing Your Resume.

Thank them, and keep them updated. Send them an email or a card to tell them how much you appreciated their time and help. I’ve written several letters over the last few years, and I’ve had 3 students to thank me or follow-up with me to tell me where they ended up. Three. You never know when you’ll need that letter writer again. It’s always best to stay in contact in some capacity, keep them updated, and allow them to continue to help you if you need it. Never underestimate the power of gratitude.

Some of this may sound harsh, but I write it in the spirit of wanting to help you to be successful. I know many of you are in the process of applying for graduate schools now…I wish you the best of luck in this process, and hopefully, this helps as you are preparing to approach professors or other professionals for letters of recommendation.

About Jill Bowers

Jill is a certified family life educator (CFLE), certified family and consumer scientist (CFCS-HDFS), and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Human and Community Development at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She developed the idea for this project when she was working on a research project where she interviewed emerging adults (18-20 year olds). Work and career related content was something about which the emerging adults were most interested in learning more, and many of the issues that were at the center of their daily concerns were those surrounding their career plans and navigating the job market. Although some of the emerging adults in the study were aware of the fact that they could find information on the Internet to answer their questions or that there were resources available through their college or University, most of them could not recall being required to participate in any professional development courses that helped them with career-related skills and most of them suffered from “information overload” related to their Internet searches for information that would help them with their career paths. For example, some of them had been told about the importance of networking (e.g., at Career Fairs), but they did not really understand what this was or how to do it. Therefore, as a result of her experiences working with emerging adults, Jill initiated this project to help FCS students by providing them with information that will help ensure their success as they navigate the job market.

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