Though asking a professor for a letter of recommendation may feel daunting, professors are humans, too—specifically human who have likely had to go through the same ritual multiple times in their academic careers. A letter of recommendation is a document that is sometimes required for applications wherein the writer assesses the capabilities of an applicant. Whether you need a reference letter for an application to graduate school, a job opportunity, or a scholarship, there are important factors to keep in mind before making your request:
When you ask a professor for a recommendation, do so with the goal of making the letter as easy as possible for your professor to write. This means before you send your request, have all of the following documents ready to send your professor as soon as they confirm that they can help with your request:
Update your resume with your most recent accomplishments and make sure it has been edited meticulously.
2. Most Important Accomplishments
Make a list of 3-5 accomplishments or experiences that you would really like your professor to mention in the letter, and give specific details about when these opportunities occurred, what your role was, and what the outcome was.
3. Brief Personal Statement
This can be bullet point list since you want to make this as quick and easy for your professor to read as possible. Clearly state why you wish to pursue the opportunity you need a letter for and what you hope to accomplish at the company or institution.
4. Work Samples
Include work that you turned into their class (preferably something that earned a high grade or praise from your professor) that will help jog your professor’s memory about you as a student. If your professor taught you in a subject not directly related to the field you’re applying for, include work samples relevant to the opportunity as well.
Professors are busy people. Because teaching is a profession that requires professors to spend a lot of time outside of the classroom working, professors can have very packed schedules. To avoid putting unnecessary pressure on your prof, give them an ample amount of time to write the best letter possible for you!
If your professor agrees to write a letter for you, they will need to look over the documents you’ve given them, potentially look into companies you’ve worked for, ask you further questions, and actually write and send the letter.
If you are still in school and have a close relationship to your professor, let them informally know that you plan on applying for an opportunity as early as possible. They may even volunteer to help you right away. You should give your professor as much lead time as possible. After you’ve prepared your materials, let them know. You should request a letter no later than a month and a half before the due date, and you should include the due date in your request so your professor is able to make an informed decision.
Address your professor in a way that is consistent with how you typically interact with them. If you know them well, and they have let you know they are comfortable being called by their first name, don’t attempt call them ‘Doctor X’ or ‘Professor X’ in attempt to sound more flattering. On the other hand, if you have never been on a first name basis with your professor, attempting to make your relationship seem stronger than it is by referring to them by their first name is also a bad move.
The guidelines vary from case to case. For example, a person who has not had a class with a professor in five years should send more identifying information (I enjoyed your class Analyzing Victorian Literature in Fall 2015) than a person who is currently enrolled in class with the professor they are asking.
While requests should not be oversaturated with flattery, a friendly greeting and expression of why you’re choosing to ask this professor is an important touch. If being in their class inspired you to apply for a fellowship in the field or if their role as a mentor gave you the confidence to continue education, you should definitely mention it.
Have back up options in mind.
If your first choice professor will be going on sabbatical, is in the midst of their own big project or has received a large volume of requests, they may have to turn you down. If you don’t receive a response in a timely manner, ask another professor rather than hounding your first choice or waiting to hear back indefinitely.
Consider your references carefully.
Do a little research to see if any professors you are close with have ties to the institution/company you need a letter for. Maybe a professor you’ve worked with has been thanked by a professor at the graduate school you’re applying to in a book or the professor serves on a committee with someone at a company you wish to work for. Make sure that you’re really getting the most out of your letter. However…
Don’t select a professor because of their name alone.
If you have a professor who’s a rockstar in their field or has a connection to what you’re applying for, don’t select them for that reason alone if they don’t know you personally or if you didn’t perform well in their class. For instance, if you had a professor as a lecturer but never spoke with them one on one, they may not be able to speak to your talent and potential as strongly as a professor who knows you better.
Dear Professor Example,
I hope that your semester is off to an amazing start!
I first developed an interest in Victorian literature as member of your Analyzing Victorian Literature seminar in Fall 2017, and my desire to pursue a path in the study of literature increased under your mentorship during my senior thesis in Spring 2018. Because of my interest in analyzing literature, I intend to further deepen my education by applying to the Master of Arts program in English at Sample University next fall.
Because I benefited from your class so greatly, I believe that you would be the ideal person to write a letter of recommendation for the program. The letter deadline is January 31, 2019, and should you agree to fulfill this request, I can send you work samples, an updated resume, personal statement and any other documents that you would like. That said, I completely understand if any circumstances would prohibit you from being able to write the letter. Please let me know either way within the next two weeks.
I am happy to answer any questions you may have through email or over the phone. I really appreciate your instruction over the years, and thank you for taking the time to review this.
After your professor submits their letter, send them a sincere thank you note for writing the letter. For examples of professional letters, check out 5 Sample of Effective Professional Letter Writing and Thank You Letters for References and Recommendations. If you have an address for your professor (personal or office), sending a handwritten note is a really nice touch.
Regardless of the result, let your professor know what the outcome is and thank them again for their time. Before you know it, you may find yourself getting requests to write recommendation letters yourself.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.
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