"Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation?"
A professor’s advice on how to ask for a letter of recommendation

Michael D. Breidenbach

Who should I ask?

Whether you need a letter for a job opening, college application, or graduate school dossier, you will want to select the best letter writers. You should select recommenders based on the following criteria in this order:

  1. How well the writer knows you. Are you confident that the writer would be able to convey detailed examples of the quality of your work, to show your specific characteristics and talents, and to give a favorable impression of you overall?

  2. The recommender. All else being equal, the writer should:

    • Have some connection to what you are pursuing, such as the field of study, the profession, or the university or organization to which you are applying.

    • Be well known in the specific field or profession you are applying to. The rank or position of the writer also matters. For instance, it’s best to ask for a full or associate professor rather than an assistant professor for a letter, at least when applying to graduate programs. But rank is not the most important factor. A really detailed letter from a manager is superior to a formulaic letter from a CEO.

    • Be responsible with writing letters. You don’t want to waste time—or risk having your application not considered—because of a delinquent letter writer.

What should I do before asking for a letter?

Make sure you really want to apply for the position. It’s frustrating when recommenders write letters for those who do not end up applying to the position or program. (That’s not the same as those who end up not attending program or taking the position. Recommenders know there are good reasons to decline an offer, and students and job applicants are encouraged to apply to several programs and positions.)

Also ensure that your resume or curriculum vitae is fully complete and edited by a professional. Seek the help of your career services center or trusted advisors.

When should I ask for a letter?

Don’t delay. Write to the potential recommender at least four weeks before the deadline. You may not hear from the writer for the first week, so that still gives him or her three weeks to write it.

How should I ask for a letter?

Email is typically best since you don’t want to put the recommender on the spot. In your email, don’t send all the details at once. Simply state the position you are applying for, the organization, and the deadline. Don’t presume that the recommender will write a letter for you, and don’t feel entitled to one. If you feel the need to reintroduce yourself to your potential letter writer, that might be a sign that he or she doesn’t know you well enough to write a good letter. That said, do update the recommender on what you have been doing if it’s been awhile since you last spoke with him or her.

What do I send the recommender when they’ve agreed to write a letter?

Each application is different, but in general, you should give the recommender the following information. It helps us with writing the letter efficiently and ensures that you give the writer information that may not be in the application.

  1. Name of the program/job/fellowship/internship

  2. A description of the program/job/fellowship/internship

  3. The person, with his or her title (Dr./Prof./Mr./Mrs./Ms., etc.), to whom the recommender should address in the letter

  4. Where and how the recommender should send the letter: either by mail, email, or through a website. If by mail or email, supply the address. If through a website, supply the link or have the website automatically send the recommender an email with the link

  5. The deadline: either when the letter needs to be postmarked, or when it needs to be received

  6. A copy of your final, edited resume/curriculum vitae

  7. An unofficial digital copy of your transcript(s) (as applicable)

  8. All other materials you will be sending in your application: essays, writing samples, portfolios, etc.

  9. A statement as to why you want the position/job/fellowship/internship

  10. Anything you would like the recommender to consider including in the letter, including sentences or paragraphs in which you highlight your strengths, skills, experience, etc.

  11. A list of the class(es) you have taken with the professor, what term and year you took them, and what grade you received (as applicable)

When should I follow up with the recommender?

Sometimes you won’t receive an immediate response from your potential recommender. Follow up via email in a week. If there’s no response within two days, then move on and ask another recommender. You don’t want your application to be late. If the recommender hasn’t responded at all, it’s because he or she is either too busy or doesn’t want to write the letter. Either way, that’s not a good sign. Move on.

If the recommender said he or she will write the letter, but you haven’t received confirmation that he or she has in fact sent it, remind him or her via email a week before the deadline.

What if the organization to which I’m applying wants a hard copy of the letter?

If the organization requires a hard, signed copy of the letter sent through the mail, it is courteous, but not strictly required, to provide your recommender a stamp. (The recommender will typically use official letterhead and envelopes.)

May I see the letter?

No. Don’t expect that the recommender will give you the letter, either for you to read or for you to send along with your application (unless it is already sealed). An honest assessment requires confidentiality.

Anything else?

Writing a letter of recommendation is a professional courtesy. We want you to succeed, and you can help us help you by following this etiquette.

© Michael D. Breidenbach 2017-2019