How to Ask Your Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

FT Contributor
A man writing on a paper with the word "recommended" at the top.
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There are various times, especially at the beginning of your professional career, that you may need a recommendation to bolster an application. A letter of this nature is typically provided by a person who has served in a supervisory role over you and who has the authority to evaluate your achievements, work habits, and skills.

Letters of recommendation are often used for graduate school applications or for a variety of professional positions in the work world. It’s also important to differentiate a letter of recommendation from a character reference letter. The latter is written by someone outside of a workspace who can vouch for your character, soft skills, and other personal abilities.

Asking Your Professor to Write a Recommendation Letter

Professors are one of the most common sources for letters of recommendation. Academic leaders bring a level of analysis and authority that can add significant weight to an application, which makes them a key element of your professional network.

A professor — especially one from whom you’ve taken multiple classes — can accurately attest to your skills and abilities because they’ve watched you give presentations, attend classes, and complete assignments.

However, a request for a letter of recommendation isn’t something that should be taken lightly. You’re asking the individual to put their considerable academic weight behind you. In addition, you’re asking them for a significant investment of their time.

If you know you’re going to need a letter of recommendation from a professor, make sure to ask for one properly. Don’t show up on their doorstep the day before the recommendation is needed.  

Ideally, you should begin the process a couple of months in advance. Below is a timeline of when and how to ask your professor for a letter of recommendation beginning two months before the letter is needed.

Two Months Before the Recommendation Is Needed

Whenever possible, it’s best to begin your search for a letter of recommendation at least two months before you need it. At this point, your goal should be identifying which professor is the best candidate to ask for a recommendation.

A few questions that can help narrow your choices include:

  • Have you taken multiple classes from them?
  • Are they up to date on your most recent work — both in and out of the classroom?
  • Have they had a chance to properly assess your strengths and skills?
  • Do you have a good track record in their classes — both academically and ethically?
  • Do you trust in their ability to accurately comment on your character, intellect, work habits, and achievements?

Five to Six Weeks Before the Recommendation Is Needed

The best time to ask for your recommendation is approximately five to six weeks before you’ll need it. When you do so, try to make the request in person.

When visiting in person isn’t possible, you can send an email. If you do this, make sure to write in a professional business format when making your request.

One Month Before the Recommendation Is Needed

If a professor agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, set up a meeting with them a month before you need the document. Spend this meeting discussing your future plans, why you need a recommendation, and what you hope it will achieve.

Before the meeting, consider any important information you may want them to remember when writing your letter, such as past coursework or other achievements. Then make sure to point this out during your conversation. Also, bring your resume and any recent work that you would like them to see.

One Week Before the Recommendation Is Needed

It can be helpful to send a short and simple reminder to the professor a week before the recommendation is needed. If you do so, make sure to reiterate your thanks and avoid sounding pushy. Do not send more than one reminder.

Due Date of the Recommendation Letter

When the recommendation letter is due, ask your professor if you can pick it up or have them email it to you. This contact serves as a natural final reminder to the professor as well.

If the professor hasn’t gotten around to writing the letter yet, you may send a final follow-up email asking them when they expect to have it ready.

How to Ask Your Professor Politely

When asking for a recommendation, it’s important to keep in mind that no one is obligated to provide one. A professor may decline simply because they cannot handle the workload.

Remember, they’re teaching numerous students, many of whom are likely looking for recommendations as well. If a professor declines your request, accept the answer politely.

A few suggestions to keep in mind in order to help increase your chances of success include:

  • Try to visit them during office hours whenever possible.
  • Avoid over-communication or sounding pushy.
  • Make your request clear by summarizing what you hope to get from their recommendation.
  • Provide professional business formatted communication.
  • Stay organized throughout the process.

Writing Your Professor a Thank-You Letter

Finally, always remember to write a thank-you letter (snail mail, email, or even text when appropriate) after a professor provides you with a letter of recommendation. Explain how the job application went and provide relevant details. Below is a sample thank -you email to use as a guide:

Subject Line: Thank You For Your Recommendation — Jane Doe

Dear Professor Smith,

Thank you for the recommendation you provided for my application to Google. I recently had an interview and they have offered me a position as a software engineer.

I am very excited about the prospects of the offer and appreciate the part your recommendation played in helping me get the job.


Jane Doe

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