Scholarship and grant selection committees, potential employers, and graduate school admissions offices rely on letters of recommendation to gain insight into applicants’ personal accomplishments, strengths, and areas for growth. Recommendation letters offer details about your talents and their impact in ways that cannot be easily gleaned from transcripts, resumes, and test scores. Because letters of recommendation are so valuable, it is in in your best interest to help your recommenders write the most detailed and accurate letters possible.

You do not need to feel shy about requesting a letter of recommendation. All faculty, staff, and graduate students have had people write recommendations for them in the past, and they are familiar with this process.

The Academic Guides have created a suggested list of steps to take over time to increase the likelihood that you are able to submit strong recommendations to opportunities you hope to pursue.

1. Ask the people who know you best to be a recommender. The more detailed and personal a letter is, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on its readers. Ask instructors who have the most extensive, personal knowledge of you and your work to be a recommender. This means forgoing asking a well-known professor if they only recognize your face but don’t know you or your work well. Letters from well-known scholars will only help if the recommender can write a convincing, robust, and personal recommendation about you.
This inherently assumes that there are people who know you well. There is no replacement for genuine connection, so it is best if you start cultivating close working relationships with faculty as early as possible.

What if I don’t know any professors well, and I still need letters of recommendation?

If you can’t think of any professor who knows you well, take a deep breath. You can still get a nice and detailed letter!

  • People to consider asking:
    A professor from the current or most recent semester in a class in which you did well
  • Director of Undergraduate Study for your major or your Academic Dean. Your academic advisor (pre-major or within your major). If you can provide letters from University employees who are not faculty, ask any member of university staff who knows you, including advisors for any organizations you work with, folks who work in the Identity and Cultural Centers, a Director of Academic Engagement, Learning Consultant, or Academic Guides.

2. Ask early. Every professor may have their own expectations for this. However, it is common courtesy to allow at least three weeks to prepare and submit recommendation letters. You may feel more comfortable asking in person or via email. Both are fine! The Academic Guides have created an email template for you to modify and use to request a recommendation letter.

3. Provide materials that will help your recommender write accurate and purposeful letters. The more recommenders know about your past work, your interests, and your aspirations, the more specific they can be.
Things that can be helpful to share include:

  • Key information about each application that describes the nature and purpose of the scholarship, graduate program, or other opportunity
  • An advanced or final draft of application materials (i.e., essays, short answers, statement of purpose, cover letter) or a summary of your educational and career goals
  • Your reason for applying to each opportunity
  • An updated resume that highlights experience and skills
  • An unofficial transcript
  • Points you want them to highlight about you, based on your participation in their class
  • An example that represents your best work in the field for which you are applying—perhaps a graded assignment completed for the professor’s class or a fresh copy of work you submitted for another class/project
  • A list of your activities (I.e., organizations, volunteer positions, leadership positions, sports)

4. Clearly share all submission instructions and deadlines. Your recommenders should have no questions about when and where to submit their finished letters. Provide clear instructions for submission to each recommender, including dates, file format, and submission portal. If physical letters are needed, provide properly addressed and stamped envelopes to your recommenders.

5. Follow up with recommenders one week in advance of the submission deadline. Your recommenders are busy. A polite and appreciative email reminding them of an upcoming deadline can be helpful. See an example here.

6. Stay in touch with your recommenders. Send your recommendations a note to thank them for their guidance and support. Consider updating them on your progress throughout the application stages and let them know if you are selected or not. This kind of follow-up communication will help you to continue to foster a close and positive relationship and will make it easier for your recommenders to write future letters for you if needed.