Asking for Letters of Recommendation

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Eileen Stremple, Center for Graduate Preparation and Achievement, Syracuse University (2010)

Many students start the reference seeking process by asking, “Would you write me a letter of recommendation?” For the most part, if you know the person well enough, they will write you a letter. What you need to be aware of is the type of letter they will write. Very seldom will any professor write an actively negative letter, or letter of warning, but there are a multitude of tiny signals that recommendation letter writers (and readers) know that are nearly as damaging to a candidate’s chances. Lukewarm letters filled with tentativeness and “inability to judge” can be more damaging than outright condemnations. Here is how to avoid them.

  • The best question to ask is, “Do you feel you know my work well enough to write me a good letter of recommendation?” This way of framing the question lets both you and the professor off the hook. If the professor does not clearly recollect or does not particularly like the work they have seen from you, it’s always possible to say that they simply do not know your work well enough to write the letter. That relieves you of embarrassment and of a lukewarm letter. By asking the question this way, you’ll be certain that only professors who are enthusiastic about your work will write letters for you.
  • You need to ask for the letter of recommendation at least 6 weeks in advance of your application deadline. Waiting until the last minute is never a good idea. You want the recommender to take as much time as possible to craft you a glowing letter. You also do not want to have a person rush through the process when they are writing a letter for you.
  • Always consider signing the waiver of the right to read your letters. By asking the question as stated above, you can be certain that you won’t have to worry about a bad letter. Some students do not waive their rights to read letters, and the letters written for them, no matter how glowing, are often heavily discounted by readers. The general assumption is that no professor will write a bad or even lukewarm letter if the student is likely to read it. Letters without waiver simply do not carry as much weight.
  • Always provide the necessary forms, completely filled out.  If the letter needs to be submitted electronically, provide the correct email or website, and password.  If it must be sent via regular mail, provide a stamped and addressed envelope. Although some professors are generous about these protocols, remember that writers of your letters are doing you a favor, often at a considerable expense of time and energy. Make their jobs as easy as possible.
  • Include with the forms and envelopes any information about yourself and your work that may be useful to the professor when they are writing. Don’t assume that the professors will always remember each detail of your work in a class taken in the past. Find papers from the course, provide copies, and include a current vita or resume that covers all of your activities and interests. If you give your writers material to work with, the resulting letters will be more detailed and far more effective.
  • Finally, after the whole application process is over, take the time to contact your references, let them know how things turned out, and thank them. Not only is this an example of generosity, but it will let your writer know whether their letter accomplished the task. You can make your writers feel good, while helping them to write great letters for other students.


Adapted from Robert J. Connors