Asking Faculty for Recommendation Letters

With application deadlines for summer and fall positions and graduate programs swiftly approaching, you may be scrambling to ask faculty for letters for reference/recommendation. We’ve compiled this brief list* of suggestions for how to conscientiously ask for those letters.

The quality of a recommendation letter often depends on how well the professor knows you or is familiar with your work. This is where it pays off to start building relationships early in your academic career–take advantage of your professor’s office hours, even if you feel like you’re doing well in their course. You should develop a list of potential references, keeping in mind how well you did in a faculty member’s class, and how well he or she knows you. It’s important to remember that faculty members are often working on deadlines themselves, so ask for a recommendation letter 4-6 weeks before it is due.

Always try to ask for a letter of recommendation in person—that way, if it’s been a while since you’ve worked with your reference, you can help him/her put a face with your name. When asking, say something along the lines of “Do you feel you know me (my academic abilities, interests and leadership skills) well enough to write a letter for X scholarship or to apply to X graduate school?” By using this phrasing, you give the person you’re asking an opportunity to gracefully decline your request. Wouldn’t you rather have a recommendation letter from someone who answers yes to that very pointed question rather than from someone who reluctantly writes a letter on your behalf?

If the faculty member offers to write a recommendation letter for you, you need to provide he/she with all pertinent information before he/she can start writing the letter:

  • A cover memo listing the purpose of the recommendation letter whether for a scholarship, graduate school application, internship or full-time position.  Include the names of those requesting the letter and a deadline for mailing the letter.
  • If the recommendation is for a scholarship or graduate school, include your application essay or personal statement.  Ask the professor if he/she has the time to make comments on your personal statement.  Give your recommender printed information about the scholarship and any special instructions or forms.
  • Your resume and transcript.  Make an appointment at the Career Center for assistance in writing a professional resume.  If the recommendation is for a scholarship, make sure that your resume reflects the qualifications requested by the granting organization (such as special research skills, community service work, and leadership experience).
  • Your most significant paper or written project from the professor’s course. If applicable, also include a brief ‘reminder’ list of other relevant information (e.g. If you organized study sessions for the course or tutored other students in the subject material)
  • A stamped, addressed envelope for each recommendation, unless the recommendations need to be done electronically. In that case, email the recommender specific details and/or links they should use to upload the letter.


If you’re a faculty member working on a recommendation letter for a student, visit this site for helpful tips.


*This information was adapted from a handout produced by the Office of Merit Awards