5 Key Tips: How to Ask for A Letter of Recommendation

Updated: May 26

The thought of asking for a letter of recommendation from a professor, supervisor, or boss can be intimidating. Whenever I thought about letters of recommendation, I was so worried about who I was going to ask and what they would say when I did.



Would they say no? Would they say they don’t know enough about me, or that they don’t have the time to write me one?


I was constantly asking people for tips on the best tips for how to ask for a letter of recommendation. Based on all the advice I uncovered, I narrowed the responses down to 5 key tips.

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1. Ask for Your Letter of Recommendation Face-to-Face

This is your best option when asking for a letter of recommendation. Professors want to see that you took time out of your day to meet with them and respectfully ask face-to-face, whether that is in person or via a video meeting.


They will likely be spending quite a bit of time writing your letter, and then sending it to your individual schools. It's honorable to display your request by taking time out of your own day to discuss the matter with them.


Not only is it respectful, but a designated meeting allows professors to ask you any questions they may have. It also shows that you are acting professionally by setting up a formal meeting to request their letter. Professors will respect your actions and will be even more impressed if you then provide them with pieces of information they may not know about you.


Learn more about the 7 Important Letter of Recommendation Items Professors Request.


2. If You Can’t Ask in Person, Ask Over Email

Sometimes schedules just don’t match up. It happens. Professors are extremely busy pretty much 24/7, and their 1 hour of office hours might be at the exact time you work each week. That's okay!


From my experience, professors would rather you ask quickly over email than wait until your schedules match up. If you can set up a meeting ASAP with whoever you are asking, do it.


But, if your schedules don’t allow for a time to meet within a week or two of contacting them, email your request. Apologize for the inconvenient task of trying to match up schedules, and express your reason for wanting to meet.


After you email them, be ON TOP of checking your email notifications for their response. When they respond, if they say yes, express your deepest gratitude and send them any informational items they ask for.


3. Ask EARLY!

Ask for your letter of rec EARLY. It's likely that you will be asking for letters from the same professors that many other students will be asking, too. Professors and supervisors like to know far in advance for whom they will be writing a letter of recommendation.


If you can't find a meeting time to ask face-to-face, don't wait. I knew it was the most professional to ask in person, so I waited a full 3 weeks to meet in person with one of my professors. The meeting just kept falling through before then.


So, I finally emailed her and asked about the letter of recommendation. She ended up saying that of course, she would write me one, and she wished I would have emailed my request sooner. It's okay to send a more informal request for the sake of time. She wanted to know sooner simply so that she could know far in advance what would be expected of her.


I learned that professors much prefer being asked far in advance, such as in July or August if applications are due in December or January. This allows them time to plan before the craziness of Fall semester begins.


Professors have busy workloads and increased demands during the school year, just like we do. Don't wait!


4. Remind the Professor When You Had Them in Class

In some cases, it may have been up to a couple of years since you’ve had the professor in class. In my case, I worked for a professor in a lab for over a year, but hadn't taken a class from her since a year before that.


It probably would have taken her a while to recall when exactly I had her in class, whether I participated, and how I performed. I reminded my professor that I had her for her the neuro course two semesters before I started working in the lab. I then told her how grateful I was to have learned so much from her in class, as well as in her lab ever since.


When you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, tell them:

  • Which of their courses you took

  • Which semester you took it

  • How grateful you were to have learned so much from them.


The first two bullet points here are key for helping a professor recall when they would have had you in class. The last bullet point is key to showing the professor you aren't just asking for a letter of rec from anyone who will write you one.


It shows them you actually appreciate everything you learned from their classes. The most important thing you can do when asking for a letter of recommendation is to be polite and respectful, which brings us to the final point...


5. Tell the Professor What You Enjoyed Learning About in Their Class

Everyone loves a compliment, right?! Professors will enjoy hearing what you thought of their course.


It is a good idea to tell the professor what you gained from having them as a teacher and role model. You can express that you admire their work, their work ethic, or their ability to make class an enjoyable experience for students.


Tell them which method of their teaching helped you the most, or mention one of your favorite topics from their lectures. Professors will appreciate that you expressed positivity and encouragement about their teaching.


Professors dedicate their whole lives to research and teaching. They love communicating about their work and sharing their passions with their students. They will also love hearing you express a similar passion for learning about their work.


Expressing your favorite thing about a professor's work is something you can easily do to show your appreciation. Depending on what you mention, it can also be a reminder of that course for them, and can show that you truly did learn a lot from them. Professors are more likely to write a good letter of rec for a respectful student who shows appreciation for their hard work.


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I hope you have enjoyed these 5 Key Tips on How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation! For more application info, head over to my posts on 7 Important Letter of Rec Items Professors Request and How to Write the Best Personal Statement!


If you're feeling slightly overwhelmed by the disorganization of all of your application information, check out the 11 Best Organization Tips for Grad School Applicants.


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