Tips for Requesting Letters of Recommendation

By Erica Dietlein

So you need a letter of recommendation. Especially if you’ve never asked for one, this can be a daunting task. How do I ask for something like that? Who do I ask? What if they say no?
Fear not. Letters of recommendation are a common practice in the academic world. Your professors are in the position they’re in because they received positive letters of recommendation at some point. They know the drill.

Picking Your Letter Writer
The person you ask needs to be someone who can answer basics question about you. Do they know your name, your face, and a bit about your background? Have they worked with you personally before? If the answer to all of the above is yes, then they may be the right person to ask.
Choose your potential letter writer with care. You want to get the strongest letters of recommendation possible. Before making the request, stop and think about whether they know enough about your positive traits to speak about them and speak about them with confidence. If you select someone you’ve had bad experiences with, they will be obligated to disclose their concerns in the letter.

Making the Request
The first and most important tip: Ask in Advance! Don’t spring the request on the potential letter writer last minute if you can help it. It’s a headache for both you and them. Most professors/employers are writing multiple letters of recommendation at the same time, so asking early could set you apart.
Make the initial request in person. If at all possible, ask your potential letter writer in person if they would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation. Don’t default to email. Some people may consider it rude if you don’t ask in person first. If they say yes, you may then turn to email as a means of further communication
Ask if they can write you a strong letter. Be sure to ask if they can write you a strong letter. One way to do this is to ask something along the lines of, “Do you think you know me well enough/have enough information about me to write a strong letter of recommendation?” This gives the person an opportunity to say “no” without explanation if they feel they don’t have the information they need to write you a positive letter.
If they say yes, schedule a follow up. If they accept your request, follow up with an appointment to discuss further what it is you need the letter for and what you need out of the letter.
If they say no, it’s OK. Don’t take this as a personal rejection. More often than not, someone will say no because they don’t feel they can write you a strong letter that will help you. Additionally, it’s important to recognize people have other responsibilities that may conflict with their ability to write a letter.
Don’t forget to say thank you. Even if they said no, let them know you appreciate their time.

The Email
Be professional. Make sure you’re tone is professional, and include any documentation that the letter writer might have asked to see. Even if they don’t explicitly ask to see what program it is you’re applying for, consider sending them a link or document that describes what it is you’re applying for. If the letter writer has a better idea of who their audience is, it will help guide them when they write the letter.
Don’t forget to say thank you. Use appropriate salutations and end the message with a statement of appreciation.

The Meeting & Follow Up
Be ready to talk about what it is you’re applying for. The letter writer probably has some questions about you and the program or job you’re interested in.
Be specific. The letter writer needs to know what it is you want the letter to accomplish. Let them know if there is anything specific you want reflected in it and why.
Follow up. You’ve likely asked for a letter from someone who, like you, has a lot of other things going on. After you have made the request and have met with them to discuss the letter, follow up with them. Let them know that you appreciate their help, but don’t do this last minute.
And, as always, don’t forget to say thank you.

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