Tips on Requesting Recommendation Letters

Asking for a letter of recommendation can be quite intimidating, especially if you haven't done it before. Here's how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

By Norrell Edwards — November 28, 2022


Tips on Requesting Recommendation Letters

It's that time of year again—recommendation season! For many, applying for college and college scholarships is the first time a student might have to garner recommendation letters. This means it will also be your first time asking for recommendations, and far from your last. For better or worse, recommendations are a foundational part of one's academic and professional journey. Some feel recommendations are an undue burden on students and teachers alike that should be abolished. The actual weight of recommendation letters can be unclear across various admissions and award processes. For now, however, rec letters are here to stay. So, let's strategize on the best way to approach them.

Who to Ask

Ideally, you should ask someone you know well. Try to ask a professor or teacher with whom you have taken more than one class and developed a strong rapport. Ask someone who you know believes in your potential and understands you as a student. If you do not have a teacher like this—start thinking about who might come closest to this. Maybe you've only taken one class with them, or you're in a class with them right now, but they seem to like you. Ask that person.

Who Not to Ask

Should you ask the impressive, famous teacher/professor who intimidates you? The one you've barely talked to you but everyone respects them. You probably should not ask them. If you have any doubt about how a teacher feels about you as a student or that they do not know you—do not ask that person. Unfortunately, some teachers will say yes to writing a recommendation and then provide a lackluster letter on behalf of that student. That letter will do more harm than good. Ask someone you have a positive relationship.

What to Write

Tell your recommender what you want them to write about! Perhaps you want them to emphasize your particularly creative and unique final assignment in their class or mention an award you won. Your recommender will appreciate your guidance and suggestions on what is important to highlight. Write them a short email that provides all the context about the recommendation: when is the deadline, how do they submit, and any other special instructions. In that email, include what you'd like them to highlight, your CV or resume, and maybe a copy of an assignment, project, essay, etc., you would like them to talk about.

Time

Be sure to give your recommender enough time, especially during the busy fall letter request season. A range of 3-6 weeks would be appropriate for internships, jobs, awards, etc. Extra time is best for more important requests, like college and graduate school recommendations. You might tell a high school teacher years in advance that you liked their class and hope to one day ask them for a college recommendation.

Circle back with them about writing the letter during the end of your junior year and the very beginning of your senior year. When it's your first time asking a college professor for a graduate school recommendation, request as much as 2-3 months in advance for a recommendation and check in with your recommenders as you get closer to the deadline. A savvy tip for check-in emails: write an email thanking them again for agreeing to write the letter and asking if there's anything else they need from you. This way, you've politely reminded them of their commitment without admitting you were worried they had forgotten.

It's OK to Keep Asking

Don't be afraid to ask the same recommenders for more letters. Always remain gracious and thankful for their time and support. Throughout graduate school, I'd feel guilt-ridden about pestering my professors for letters. This guilt and anxiety would often lead me to wait until the last minute to make my request. My professors always said yes and reassured me that they would write for me.

Further, I learned that tweaking their existing letter for me was easy. Even still, it didn't feel easy to believe that I wasn't taxing them with my frequent requests for scholarships or internship letters. Building as many strong relationships with as many teachers as possible is good practice. If you already have wonderful recommenders in your corner, keep up those relationships, and you can continue to ask those mentors to support your scholastic and career-related endeavors. Hopefully, they will stay life-long supporters and maybe even colleagues further down the line.

Norrell Edwards

Norrell Edwards

Norrell Edwards is a scholar, educator, and communications consultant for non-profit organizations. Her employment experience and research interests place her work at the nexus of global Black identity, cultural memory, and social justice. Norrell graduated with a BA in English Literature from Hunter’s College followed by a PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park in 20th and 21st Century Black Diaspora Literature.
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