Asking for letters of recommendation

In academia, letters of recommendation make the world go ’round. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. As a student, you’ll need people to write letters on your behalf when it comes to applying for most jobs, fellowships, scholarships, prizes, awards, honors programs, graduate schools, law schools, and so forth.

So how should you go about asking for a letter of recommendation? And how do you ensure that you’ll get good ones?

Unfortunately, the truth is that you cannot directly control the content of your letters of recommendation. They are almost always confidential and professors will write their own, honest appraisals of your suitability for the role or program for which you’re applying. It has to be this way in order for the system to be of any use whatsoever.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t exert some indirect influence over the quality of your letters of recommendation. As always, it begins with being a good student—somebody who “shows up” to college, tries hard, meets expectations, and cultivates professional relationships with those around them. If you’re a great student then you have every reason to expect that your letters of recommendation will reflect this.

Even so, there are a few additional things that it’s good to know when requesting letters.

First, you should only request letters of recommendation from professors who actually know you and who will write a “strong” letter about you as an applicant. This means approaching those instructors who know you to be punctual, diligent, hardworking, willing to listen to feedback, a good writer, and so forth. And it means avoiding professors who gave you bad grades or who otherwise have a poor impression of you.

It also means that your preparation for requesting strong letters of recommendation must start early. You have to attend office hours and be a reliable participant in classroom discussions, for example, because it’s activities like these that help to create a good reputation among the pool of potential letter writers.

Second, it’s sensible to remind your prospective referee of a few things in the same email in which you ask for a letter—especially if it’s been a while since you took a class with her or him. Something like this:

Dear Professor X

I’m writing to ask if you would consider writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf. You might remember that I took POLS 123 with you last spring. I got an A in the class and you said that I performed particularly well on writing assignments. My final paper addressed issues of environmental sustainability in American cities.

This sort of information is good to include because it will jog your prospective referee’s memory and help them to recognize that, yes, this is a student for whom I can write a strong letter of reference.

Second, however, you should never assume that somebody will automatically agree to write a letter. Whenever somebody writes a letter for you, they’re putting their professional reputation on the line. And so if you aren’t a very good student—if you’re lazy, careless, or otherwise unprofessional, for example—then a professor probably won’t not feel comfortable agreeing to write for you. Why would they?

When asking for a letter, then, I recommend including phrasing to the following effect:

Of course, I understand if you are not able to write a strong letter at this time.

This sort of language—essentially an invitation for the professor to politely decline your request—might seem self-defeating but is actually in your own best interest. As I discuss below, it’s really not a good idea to accept a letter of recommendation that might contain a negative or even an equivocal assessment of your capabilities.

Third, be clear about the program or job for which you’re applying, and emphasize the deadline by which you need the letter. Professors often need this information in order to judge if they’re going to be suitable letter-writers.

I need letters of recommendation in support of my application to the University of Kansas’s MA program in Urban Planning. The deadline for the letter being submitted would be January 15.

Hopefully, your unimpeachable reputation as a brilliant student will mean that professors are flocking to write letters in praise of your achievements. But even once you secure commitments from your referees, your role isn’t over. There’s still some information that professors will need in order to know what is required of them.

In particular, letter writers need to know the following things: How is the letter going to be submitted, and to whom? Does it get uploaded via a website; does it need to be emailed; or does it need to be mailed in hard copy? What is the deadline? And is there anything specific that the letter of recommendation must address?

Personally, I also like to see a student’s CV/resume and transcripts, so that I can include some specific details in my letter. This is because the best letters of recommendation are those that demonstrate intimate knowledge of the applicant, highlight their strengths, and even address their weaknesses in a way that will allay possible concerns.

So make sure you have all of this information prepared and ready to go. Your materials should look professional and polished—the sort of materials that will really make a referee want to go out and bat for you.

Finally, a couple of miscellaneous points that students sometimes seem to overlook or misunderstand about the letter writing process:

First, many application forms ask applicants to waive their right to view confidential letters of recommendation. You should always waive this right. Otherwise, you retain a legal right to see what your referees write about you. While this might sound nice, it actually has the effect of dissuading your letter writers from being truthful. As a result, nobody will take such letters of reference seriously. They are essentially worthless.

Second, please know that referees won’t lie on your behalf. Of course, most professors will simply decline your request for a letter if they observed you to be a truly awful student. But there is always the chance that a professor will agree to write you a letter even if they don’t have a stellar opinion of you—especially if they think that you’re asking them because you have no other options.

This makes the point above extremely important: only ask for letters when you’re confident that they will be strong. Never ask for—and never accept—a letter of recommendation from a professor who you think has a negative or even a lukewarm impression of you. Such a “recommendation” might actually torpedo your application.

Instead, get busy creating a reputation for yourself as a student who is conscientious and high-achieving. That way, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it’s time to seek out letters of recommendation. Professors will actually want to spend their time writing letters on your behalf! (Yes, it can happen!) And that’s a very good position to be in.

Other posts in this series:

Extra-curricular activities: Are they worth it?, 18 April 2017
Avoiding plagiarism, 11 April 2017
Writing professional emails, 4 April 2017
Strong writing skills aren’t optional, 28 March 2017
Writing a great introduction, 21 March 2017
What good in-class participation looks like, 7 March 2017
Credible sources: Who to trust when doing research papers, 28 February 2017
How to study for an exam, 21 February 2017
“Showing up” to college: What choosing to succeed looks like
, 14 February 2017
Taking notes, part two: What should you write down?, 9 February 2017
Taking notes, part one: In defense of pen and paper
, 7 February 2017
How to manage your time effectively in college, 31 January 2017
How to get the most out of office hours, 24 January 2017
College is a team sport
, 17 January 2017