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How to ask for a letter of reference or recommendation

In general, you should only ask those people who know you well.  For the most part, this includes your teachers, professors and work supervisors.  For graduate and professional school, the recipient is most interested in your academic performance as an undergraduate and your ability to think critically.  For job recommendations, intellectual ability and creativity are important as well as past accomplishments in previous positions.  So tailor your requests to target the appropriate letter writer, one who knows you best with regards to the requirements of the position that you seek.

Use your best manners when making your requests. Say please and thank-you.  Do not simply leave a note for someone demanding that you need a letter by the end of the week.  Personally, I would completely ignore that type of request.  Remember, you are asking someone for a favor so be pleasant and respectful.  After all, those are personality traits that a letter writer is likely to include in your reference.   Also, beware of modern journalistic pitfalls when submitting a request in writing, including email.   Write complete sentences that are grammatically correct;  pay attention to spelling and capital letters and avoid fad phrases or abbreviations.  Consider your request to be an opportunity to remind the letter writer of your adroit communication ability.  Your initial contact should be in person, if possible, or by phone call.  An email request is fine if you have relocated from the area or if repeated attempts to make contact have failed.

You must understand that regardless of what I think about you personally, I can only write letters based on what I observe.  If you earned a low B or C in my courses, I am limited to those results.  Your low grades will be reflected in my comments about your intellectual capability, performance and critical thinking.  If you did not earn at least a C in my courses, I question the reason why you would even ask me for a recommendation.  You may want to consider asking for a letter from someone who has seen you at your best, even if that person does not know you as well as I do.

Generally, you are asked whether or not you waive your right to examine letters of reference.  My impression is that a letter carries more credibility if the student waives this right.

Please understand that regardless of how important this letter is to you, it is not my priority. That is not to say that I do not care about you, but I must budget my time if you expect an honest, effective letter written on your behalf.  Therefore, if you plan to request a letter of recommendation  from me, please make sure that I have the following information.  I will not bother to write a letter for anyone unless that person takes the time to start the process.

Here is what I require before I will start composing your letter:

  1. Your phone number, address and email in case I need to contact you for additional information.
  2. A short summary or description of the position for which you are applying.  If you have already supplied an essay or completed application, I want a copy of that also.
  3. Contact information for the recipient.  If the letter is going to an individual, a phone number, an address and email for that person is essential.  Provide all of the forms or special instructions that I need to complete the letter.  Do not expect me to visit a website for you to gather or download this information.  If your situation requires that I submit a letter via email or electronically, be sure to provide the correct web address.  For PharmCas and other electronic submission sites, I will simply go to the internet link that you provide and follow those instructions.
  4. A copy of your transcripts and GPA.  This does not need to be an official copy but please highlight the courses that you took from me.
  5. A copy of your resume.  If you do not have one, perhaps this is a good time to construct one.
  6. Give me a deadline to complete your letter.  Allow a minimum of three weeks.  Bear in mind that I have “busy times” at the beginning and end of each semester and that I may need more than three weeks to finish your letter.  Feel free to call or email me and remind me of my commitment, especially if you have not heard from me since your initial request.
  7. A short biography (required).  This item really helps me to write a letter that goes beyond the typical “form letter”. A summary of work experience, volunteer activities with religious, civic or other organizations, hobbies or personal accomplishments will help me to write a letter that is personalized and insightful.  I do not expect  you to divulge every personal aspect of your life.  If you indicate reluctance to include some of your personal information in the letter I am to write, then consider whether or not I even need that information.  As an example, perhaps you experienced a family tragedy that affected your situation temporarily and you trust me enough to share that information with me but would not like to have it publicized in your letter.  If compelled to do so, you could provide that scenario to me in a personal phone call or a visit to my office rather than in writing.  In any event, I will treat as confidential all information that you provide in your biography and other documents as well.
  8. Optional information.  Anecdotes relating your experiences in my class are very helpful since I cannot remember details about all my students after a semester or two.  Did you “stump me” with a question during lecture?  Did you make a fortuitous discovery in lab?  Did I publicly praise you for a project or task well done?  You may include this as a section in your biography if you wish.
  9. Provide stamped, addressed envelopes if you are asking for multiple copies to be sent to several people.  Leave room for me to provide the return address.  In most cases, if you need only one or two letters, I will write the letter on department letterhead including a department envelope and stamp and you do not have to provide this, but be sure to ask!

Make a checklist for items 1- 7 so that you save time for both of us.  If I have to contact you for these items, that will only add to the delay.


Please let me know how your situation develops.  Did you get the job?  Did you get accepted to graduate school or successfully transfer to another institution?  I like to know if my efforts are helpful to my students and I enjoy being a small part of other people’s lives, especially former students.  Staying in touch with my former students is one of the most valued perquisites of my profession.  I can also use your success to measure the effectiveness of the letters that I write on behalf other students.

Good luck!

Last Updated: 10/06/2014
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