Letters of Recommendation

Advice to Students Seeking References


Who to Ask

There are several considerations when considering who to ask for a letter of recommendation.

  • Most importantly, you want someone that knows you and your work well. Ideally, this will be someone that you have known for some period of time – e.g. in more than one course or through long-standing employment.
  • Keep in mind that simply getting a good grade in a class does not necessarily mean that the professor can write you a strong letter of recommendation. Think about the following questions:
    • o   How well does he/she know you? Did you visit during office hours? Seek help on assignments? Talk about your future goals and aspirations?
    • It may be that the course in which you didn’t receive the highest grade is nonetheless the one in which the instructor can write a truly personalized (and therefore stronger) letter.
    • It is also useful to have letter writers that have seen you in different contexts (e.g.as an academic advisee, intern, employee, team/club member or volunteer). 
    • You will want to match the requirements of the position to which you are applying to those individuals that can speak to your skills in that area. For example, graduate schools may be more interested in your academic achievements, whereas those hiring for a job may want to have information about your level of responsibility, punctuality and professionalism that an internship supervisor would be better at evaluating. Think about asking for letters from a variety of people to ensure that all of your unique talents and skills are mentioned.


When to Ask

  • Be sure to give your writers plenty of time to complete their letter. A general rule of thumb is a minimum of two weeks, with more time allotted during especially busy periods (finals week, holidays, etc.). The more time you give your letter writers, the better able they are to provide you with a carefully crafted letter that paints you in the best light.
  • If you are close to graduating and have not yet had the need for a letter of recommendation, consider asking potential writers for a generic letter that they can keep on file and tailor later when you are applying for an internship, job, graduate program, scholarship, or fellowship. This allows your recommenders to write your letter while their experience with you is fresh in their minds. If you want them to be able to talk about that brilliant argument you made in your final paper, or the stellar presentation you gave in class, it’s best to get those specifics down on paper now.


What to Have When You Ask

  • Know what the deadline is and whether the recommendation is a form to fill out or a letter (letters take longer to complete).
  • Give your letter writers any and all information related to the position/program you are applying for promptly. It’s important that they know the exact name and details (e.g. M.A. vs. MPA). It’s helpful to include the URL for program websites as well.
  • If you are requesting that letters be provided for multiple programs/jobs, be sure to give your recommenders a list with deadlines and info on where to send the letter (address or online system, etc.).
  • If there is anything specific that the position has asked recommenders to comment on (e.g. leadership abilities, writing skills), be sure to note that as well.
  • If the letter is to be sent non-electronically, student should provide an addressed, stamped envelope.
  • Give your recommenders a résume and a brief description of why you are applying to the position. What are your career goals? How will this opportunity help you get to them? What experiences have you had that have lead you to this point? If it’s a graduate program, give specifics about what you hope to study as well as potential thesis or dissertation topics (which can be very broad). If you have written a statement of purpose, provide that.
  • Professors may ask for examples of coursework, especially from their own classes, so that they can remind themselves about your work. This is a good opportunity to remind you to save your work, preferably with the professor’s comments! Many programs ask for writing samples, and some even specify that they want graded coursework with professors’ comments.


Asking to List Someone as a Reference

  • You must ask, even if the person has previously agreed to write you recommendation letters. They are different commitments.
  • Ask what specific contact information you may include, especially if you are posting a résume online somewhere (because bots will be able to gain your references’ information and send them spam).
  • All the information you would provide for a letter writer (résume, description of program/job, etc.) needs to be provided to your reference as well.


Helpful Tips

  • If offered the choice to waive your rights to see your letter of recommendation, do so. Those who read the letter will take the letter more seriously, and many letter writers will insist upon it. Remember: if you aren’t confident that your recommenders will write a positive letter, you should ask someone else.
  • Don’t be afraid to send (polite!) reminders as deadlines approach. Most busy professors would appreciate a heads up a few days before the letter is due. 
  • Be sure to say thank you! A simple note thanking the writer for taking the time to help is much appreciated; a postcard from your study abroad location is really, really nice. If you’ve heard good news about the internship/job/graduate school, be sure to pass that along, too!