Recommendation letters can be used in a number of different ways. For instance, grad schools and many employers require recommendation letters from trustworthy references who know you well. Also, many types of people are qualified to write a recommendation letter. Employers, professors, and advisors are great resources that can recommend you for a job or grad school. Here are some pointers about whom and how to ask for recommendation letters.

Deserve a recommendation letter

If you skip classes and your grades tend to slip as the semester goes by, you’ll need to do something to make it worthwhile for your professor to write a recommendation letter for you. Don’t expect a letter automatically if you earn good grades; you need to also network and create good relationships with students, faculty, and staff. When professors see you making an effort to relate to people in this way, they’ll be more likely to recommend you for jobs, grad schools, or internships.

Ask the right person

When you find out that you need a recommendation letter for something, it might take a while for you to think of people who can recommend you. This is okay. Don’t worry too much about getting the most prestigious name you can find to recommend you for a job. Of course, that might help bring attention to your application, but if the people who own those names don’t know you academically, professionally, or personally, then their recommendation letters will seem bland and generic.

The best people to ask (whether or not they are well known in your field) are people who know you well, either academically, professionally, or personally. These people will provide a unique and customized recommendation letter for you. These letters are the ones you want because it will allow their readers to actually get an idea of who you are as a potential grad student or employee instead of only understanding basic knowledge about you and your achievements.

Ask the right way

Asking anyone for recommendation letters can be intimidating, but don’t let fear or anxiety keep you from asking for and, therefore, receiving recommendation letters. Usually, asking people to recommend you for a job or grad school is easier than you may think; just make sure you ask in the right way. There are a few things that you should avoid when asking for recommendation letters. For instance, asking a professor for a recommendation letter as you pass each other in the hallway would be too casual; instead, ask to speak to them later in their office, or visit them during their office hours at an appropriate time.


Depending on your relationship with your professor (or whomever you’re asking to recommend you), you might decide to either e-mail or make an appointment to see him/her. If you have casual relationships with them, then e-mailing people to ask for recommendation letters would be a good choice; however, no matter how informal your relationship is, there should be a professional tone to your e-mail because recommendation letters should be taken seriously.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel quite comfortable enough e-mailing to ask for recommendation letters, then making appointments might be the better choice for you. This option would be best for current employers who you don’t see very often while you’re working or for past professors you haven’t seen in a while. Depending on their preferences, you could make an appointment by calling their office or e-mailing them directly to set up an appointment with them. The next tip is about what to do when you finally talk to or e-mail the people you’d like recommend you.

Have all the information

Whether you e-mail your professors or talk to current employers in person, make sure you give all your potential references the information they need to recommend you for your job, internship, or grad school. Many grad schools have particular requirements that your references must complete to correctly recommend you as a student.

For instance, there might be word count requirements or a few questions your references need to answer in their recommendation letters. Before meeting with your potential references, make sure you read your grad school, job, and internship applications carefully so that you can inform your professor/employer quickly and efficiently.

Provide enough time

If you read my recent blog post series about procrastination, you know that too many people procrastinate. You also probably know if you’re a procrastinator. If you are, don’t procrastinate asking for recommendation letters. When you ask for a recommendation letter, you’re asking them to spend their own time doing something that they won’t get paid for; don’t waste your time and theirs by asking them to write a recommendation letter in less than a day or two.

Give your references about 2–4 weeks to write the letter; it will give them plenty of time to think about what to say, allow them to format it to a template if necessary, and give them time to actually write it. You usually learn that you need a recommendation letter in plenty of time to ask professors and employers for them, so giving 2–4 weeks for them to write it shouldn’t be an issue.

Recommendation letters are somewhat of a tricky business, but if you do what it takes in academia and in the workplace to earn praises from your superiors, then recommendation letters shouldn’t be an issue at all for you to ask for and receive. I found a few helpful resources for you all; take a look at Alison Doyle’s article entitled Requesting Letters of Recommendation and an article in U.S. News entitled Ask Early and Nicely for Letters of Recommendation.

We also have some resources on our PhDStudent website in our Graduate School Application Process section. Good luck with your recommendation letters, and let me know if you have any questions or comments in the comment section below.


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