How (Not) to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

I am always pleased when students ask me for recommendation letters. The request shows a level of trust in our relationship that makes me think I am doing my job properly. It also demonstrates that the student is thinking ahead about his/her career, which is a positive sign. Writing a recommendation allows me to say nice things about my student  and feel that my compliments carry the imprimatur of the institution as the student goes out into the world–also a gratifying sensation.

However, two facts mitigate my (and my colleagues’) enjoyment of recommendation-writing:

1. The need for recommendations is seasonal, which means the requests and deadlines pile up, often at inconvenient times.

2. Students often don’t know how much information a writer needs in order to craft an effective recommendation.

Paula Backscheider, a powerhouse in 18C studies, has some excellent guidelines on her website for students seeking recommendations. Because I am less well-known than Dr. Backscheider, I don’t need to be quite as specific, but I would nonetheless offer the following general suggestions for any student planning to ask a professor for a recommendation:

  • Choose professor(s) for whom you did good work and from whom you got good grades. It’s possible to have a good personal relationship with a lower-achieving student, but it’s difficult to write a positive recommendation for that person (Hey, look, another reason to keep your grades up!).
  • Conversely, it’s possible to make good grades but not stand out as exceptional. Ideally, ask a professor who has known you for more than one semester or who can really speak to your work ethic/personality/intellectual capability in some way (Hey, look, another reason to go to class, participate, and attend office hours once in a while!).
  • Tell the professor what you want her to say about you. If you have a résumé, statement of purpose, application essay, or something else , send it along so that the recommender is singing from the same hymnal that you are.
  • Give your professor the practical information she needs to write the letter. This is where students sometimes leave us hanging. We need to know:
    • Addressee–who is receiving the letter?
    • Method of delivery–hard copy or electronic? Sent directly to recipient, or will you pick it up?*
    • Purpose–what are you applying for? A link to a description of the job or program is very handy.**
    • Deadline–when do you or the recipient need the letter?
  • Give your professor sufficient time. Since recommendation requests tend to arrive in flocks, and at moments when we are often busy with other work, two or three weeks’ lead time is a blessing. “As soon as possible” is unhelpful (a defined deadline is easier to work with). “I need it tomorrow” may lead to a polite refusal based only on practical impossibility.

If you feel awkward about writing to ask for a recommendation and including all of the above information in your initial email, please stop feeling awkward! Complete information helps us make informed decisions. Quite honestly, I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve had to decline writing a recommendation because I did not feel comfortable recommending the student. Counting the number of follow-up emails I’ve had to exchange with students whom I was happy to recommend but who weren’t telling me enough would take a lot longer! Taking the responsibility to provide all the details makes you look smart–at exactly the moment when you want to look as smart as possible.


*Some professors, Dr. Backscheider among them, will only write “blind” (confidential) letters of recommendation. Even if confidentiality is not required, it is a preferable practice for all concerned that the subject of the recommendation not see the letter.

**A “general” recommendation is hard to write and often ineffective to read. Recommendations should be solicited and written for specific purposes only.

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