Getting Letters of Recommendation: A Student’s Guide

| Genevieve Carlton


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Asking for letters of recommendation may seem intimidating, but your teachers, mentors, and coaches will be happy to help — especially if you make it easy.

While requesting letters of recommendation can feel awkward, remind yourself that writing these letters is part of the job for college professors. Outside of academia, most mentors, bosses, and coaches are also happy to write recommendation letters.

If you're not sure how to ask, when to ask, or what to give your letter-writers, keep reading. This resource provides a step-by-step guide for getting letters of recommendation.


How Do You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

How should you ask for a letter of recommendation? What should you say? It's fine to ask in person or through email, but either way, begin by explaining why you need the letter. "I'm applying for grad school to study economics. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation?"

Be clear about the deadline, the materials you will provide the letter-writer, and why you're asking them. For example, if you wrote a strong research paper for a professor, explain that you're asking them to speak about your research skills and preparation for grad school. You can also ask your letter-writer to speak to your leadership skills, academic strengths, or other topics specified in the application.

Applicants should also consider asking more people than the minimum number of letters required for the application. This ensures you have enough, even if one letter writer runs out of time.


How Far in Advance Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

Writing a letter of recommendation takes time, so make sure to give your letter-writers plenty of notice. For college or grad school applications, plan to ask at least 2-3 weeks before the application deadline. Keep in mind that the deadline for applications might align with professors' busy seasons, like the end of a semester, or times when your professors might not check their email regularly, such as school breaks. In these cases, it's better to ask earlier or in person.

If you're aiming to get letters of recommendation for job applications, you might not have weeks' or months' notice. In anticipation of opportunities that appear on short notice, consider building a reference or credential file. Your letter-writers can submit non-role-specific letters for you, which you can keep on file for job applications.

In addition to applications that require a letter, you'll also need a list of references who potential employers can call. Try asking your letter-writers if you can list them as references for jobs that don't require a letter.


What Information Should You Provide Your Letter-Writer?

The more information you can give your letter-writer, the better. First, plan to send your personal statement or cover letter. Including a resume and any other applicable information will help your letter-writer know what skills they should include.

If you're asking a professor, provide a copy of any papers or exams from their class so they have your work easily on hand. Finally, provide information about the grad school or job posting so they can customize the letter.

It's best to plan ahead. Organize the information before you approach a professor, mentor, or boss to write your letter. When reaching out to potential letter-writers, let them know what information you've put together; this will make it easy for them to oblige.


What Do You Do Once You Have the Letter of Recommendation?

Usually, your letter-writers will submit their letters directly to the university or employer. But in some cases, they will send it to you.

If your letter-writer hands over the letter directly to you, make sure to save copies for future applications and store them in an easily accessible reference file. Many career centers also offer a reference or credential file for students, so look into that at your school.

Once you have the letter or a notification that your letter-writer submitted a letter on your behalf, send a thank-you note. The note doesn't have to be complicated. Simply thank the letter-writer and keep them updated on the status of your application.


What Do You Do if Your Letter-Writer Says No (or Misses the Deadline)?

Sometimes a letter-writer says they can't write a recommendation. Saying "no" doesn't necessarily reflect their opinion of the student. It's possible that the letter-writer simply doesn't have time to write an effective letter, or that they declined because they may not be the best person for your application. For example, an adjunct, teaching assistant, or coach might recommend finding another letter-writer for grad school applications.

What if your letter-writer misses the deadline? Professors failing to deliver a letter of recommendation does occur, even if it's rare. Fortunately, many programs accept letters of recommendation after the officially posted deadline for applications. Asking for more letters of recommendation than the minimum requirement can also ensure you'll meet the deadline even if one writer falls through.

Frequently Asked Questions

true Are You Allowed To Read Your Letters of Recommendation?

No. In most cases, you can't read your letters of recommendation. Some applications even require applicants to waive their right to read their letters of recommendation.

true Who Should You Not Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

It is best to ask people who know your academic or professional accomplishments well. Do not ask for letters from distant contacts who don't know you or your work well enough to write an effective letter.

true Is Two Weeks Enough Time To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

Typically, letter-writers require at least two weeks' notice to write a letter of recommendation, but more is better. Some may request additional time, so always ask early.

true How Long Does a Letter of Recommendation Last?

You may be able to reuse letters of recommendation. However, many grad schools ask the letter-writer to submit the letter directly, so you will have to ask your writers to re-submit their letters each time you apply to a new program.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

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