How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation From Your Professor

Gesture Drawing

College admissions season has already started with early decision application deadlines coming up next month.  I’m already getting my first flood of requests for letters of recommendation from students.  On average, I write about 20 letters of recommendation a year. That may not sound like that many letters to write, but I devote a lot of time to each letter so that I can best articulate each student’s unique strengths to support their application. I can imagine from the Admissions office perspective,  many letters of recommendation probably all start to sound the same after a while, so I work hard to make my letters distinctive.

Because I get so many requests, I require my students to follow specific guidelines in order to get a letter from me. I’m sure each professor has their own requirements, so check with each of your professors and see what they require. Here are my policies:

1) Achieve a certain grade or higher in my course.
When I write a letter of recommendation, I have to feel that I can enthusiastically rant and rave about how incredible the student is, in terms of both their character and academic accomplishments. I won’t say here exactly which grade is the cut off point, but it’s pretty high up there.

2) Ask politely and don’t make assumptions. 
You might think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised how many students are not polite when asking for a letter. It’s important to know what’s good practice when asking, because this is definitely a process you’ll have to do repeatedly throughout your career.

I’ve had students email me, stating that they listed me as a reference on a job application without ever asking my permission. That alone is presumptuous enough that I will tell the student to remove me from their reference list. One student asked for a letter and in the same email, told me that they had already sent the school my email and that I should be expecting an email where I could upload my letter. I had a student who asked me to write them a letter for a grant application that didn’t exist yet, and then continued to pester me about it even after I said no twice. It got to the point where I had to tell them, point blank, that I wouldn’t write letters for them in the future. Ask politely, and wait to hear my response before you do anything.

3) Provide 2-3 months advance notice of your earliest deadline. Even if the student got an A in my course, if they ask 2 weeks before their deadline, I won’t write the letter. My schedule is so densely packed that I simply can’t take on last minute requests. I am sure that this is also the case for all other professors.

4) Correspond with me promptly throughout the process.
Asking for a letter is just the beginning of a mutual effort between myself and the student. Don’t disappear after I’ve agreed to write the letter, you have to be involved every step of the way. There are so many little details that have to be followed up on, and when students don’t provide information I need promptly it makes everything unnecessarily complicated.

5) Say thank you. 
This is a mandatory habit to establish for the future. I’m appalled at how few people do this, especially when it’s so easy to do, and takes so little time.  I’ve had several instances where students emailed me asking for help with something, I took the time to write them a lengthy email with advice, and then never heard from them again. I guess they got what they needed from me, but I find it rude to not even reply with a quick “thank you.”  It bothers me enough that I have a list in my head of who didn’t say “thank you.” Sometimes that’s the difference between whether I recommend someone for a job or not. A few weeks ago, I got an email from a lawyer I had never met in person before, thanking me for referring one of my students to them.  That email made a difference; that lawyer is now cemented in my head as someone who is polite and professional.

Gesture Painting

Writing letters of recommendation are part and parcel of being a teacher, and I am always happy to help my students however I can. Plus, when you have phenomenal students, the letters practically write themselves. If you’re a student, be prepared to put in effort on your end, I can guarantee that your professors will appreciate it!


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