How to Ask Your Profs for Letters of Recommendation (guest post by Kathryn Norlock)

The following is a guest post* by Kathryn J. Norlock, who holds the Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics at Trent University, advising undergraduates applying to graduate school, professional schools, and jobs about how to ask their professors for letters of recommendation. It contains advice worth circulating widely. (The post originally appeared at her website.) 

So You Want a Letter of Recommendation?
How Students Can Ask Me or Any Professor for a Letter
by Kathryn J. Norlock

Every few years, I re-publish this guide for students of mine (present and former) applying to graduate school. This is also useful (if a little less so) for students applying to law or medical school, or a variety of professional jobs. It’s good to repeatedly have this task, as having to do so means that no matter where I move or what platform I use, I meet students who aim for a variety of accomplishments and want to know if I can help them succeed.

Here’s what I’d like students to include in a request for a letter of recommendation:

When:  Plot a time-line based on the following: (1) when the application deadlines are of your six-to-nine preferred schools, (2) when the relevant admissions tests are being offered (GREs, LSATs, MCATs), (3) when prep courses for the admissions tests are offered in your local area, and (4) when you will need to line up professors for recommendations. Note that each of these actually happens earlier than the one before it. Most university deadlines are in the November, December, January or February before the fall you enter, but if you want letters from us to arrive well before a December deadline, you’ll need to ask us by September so we have time, advanced notice, and the opportunity to meet with you and discuss your application materials and our letters. This means you will be asking us for letters a year in advance of admission to a graduate program. (If you are in your third year of undergraduate study, the spring semester is a good time to start this process! It gives you the summer to get the materials below together.)

Who: Advice abounds on the Internet but generally authors agree that letters should come from at least one if not two or three academics who can say something specific and largely positive about your scholarly performance and your potential for success. These are usually professors with whom you have taken at least one and preferably more courses.

How: The best practices of asking have many aspects. Write with politeness and the formality appropriate to the importance of this request (and it is important). You may be jogging buddies or Frisbee golfers with your instructor, but when you ask for a letter, you’re asking to add to the professor’s job duties of the day so that they can assist in advancing your professional goals. This is a matter concerning both of your careers. It is not to be taken lightly.

  1. Use a reasonably presentable email address. This is not the time to use hellokittyburpz at yahoo.
  2. State your business in the subject line: applying to graduate school (for example).  Subject lines that say “hey” or “hi” are often filtered out by my junk filter.
  3. Ask, don’t tell. It is not guaranteed that any of us will write a letter, and there are many reasons why a professor might have to decline.
  4. Provide all the necessary information we might need in the request, sparing us the necessity of asking and jogging the memories of the fuzzy!  See the next section:

What: The more you provide instructors, the more information we have to say that we can write a letter, and the more specific those letters can be.  Admissions committees get tons of vague letters (“I had Bob in a class a few years ago and he was nice”).  You need your letter to be specific, well-informed, and true.

  1. All letters are expected to start with the information as to how we know our students and in what capacity. So please tell us!  Tell professors exactly what courses you had with them, including course code and title, exactly when, including semester and year, and exactly what grades you received in said courses.  We have thousands of students and can’t track this down for you.  You’re asking us for these letters, so tell us what we need to make them good.
  2.  State the programs and schools to which you’re applying, and ideally, why you are applying to these programs in particular.
  3. Your unofficial transcripts (note courses you took with them).
  4. A draft of your statement of purpose or personal statement (whatever the applications are asking for), plus writing sample if it is part of an application.
  5. A copy of your best work in the course(s) you’ve taken with the instructor you’re asking for the letter (preferably a graded paper with instructor comments on it), and if you don’t have those anymore, then a narrative about a great moment for you in the course, a strong paper, a learning experience, a bad day that was interesting because you learned something, or a flash of insight you had, anything specific that would be just one thing I could point to, etc.
  6. Your resume or CV.

Why: The reason you would do all this is to get a good letter that really reflects your academic performance and character and features your distinctive work and strengths. If you don’t do all this, it is still possible that I could write a so-so letter. But you’d then be competing for entrance to the program of your choice with students who did the above and got much, much better letters. So if you want to increase the chances that you’ll succeed, you’ll do all of the above.

Good luck, bon chance.

Art: from Lola Dupre, “a B C D”

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6 years ago

This all looks like good advice to me. The only thing I’d add is “send a gentle reminder before the deadline if you haven’t been told the letter has been sent”. It’s easy to get behind or let such things slip, so reminders are useful.

6 years ago

This is great–thanks! And thanks for Matt’s suggestion, which is also right.
I have an additional suggestion, which I’ve found enormously helpful over the years. Create a form for your recommendees to fill out. This can be a Word doc, a .pdf, a Google form, whatever. The key is to get the student to do all the organizational work, which is easy for them, but time-consuming for us. Mine does several things:
– Gives instructions (e.g., remind me X days before letter is due) (like Matt’s suggestion).
– Gets basic organizational info: addresses, dates (if different), and so forth.
– Asks for the type of letter (law school, grad school, job, tailored to a program, etc.).
– Asks for their record: what classes/semesters, what were their grades on the key projects. [I have all that info, and I cross check, but it’s easier than combing through the online system.]
– Asks if there’s anything else that I should know (career plans, majors, why they want to go, etc.)

When they send the form in, I save it in a folder (I also have them name the file by due date and their name, so jane doe’s letter due dec 1 2017 would be something like: 171201_DOE_JANE_LOR. That way all my letter writing obligations are in one folder and sorted by due date.

I write a lot of letters, and having this kind of information makes it very easy to get started quickly. And it both empowers and puts the onus on students to keep after me. That is, I REQUIRE that they write to remind me, and I tell them that I really value it–that way they’re not shy about it and don’t worry they’ll annoy me.