How to Ask Your Professors for References

Asking someone for help with anything can be nerve wracking, especially when it's someone you look up to and admire. However, from pretty much the second you start college, great and unique opportunities arise that require applications, and often times, letters of recommendations.

Whether you're looking for a summer internship or completing a study abroad application, professors are a great resource to tap into when it’s time for a recommendation letter. They’ve gotten to know your work ethic on an intimate level, and hopefully you’ve been speaking up in class and going to office hours enough that they’ve to know you more personally. 

But asking professors for recommendations can be intimidating. There’s always the voice in the back of your heading thinking that they might say no and put you in an uncomfortable position. We talked to Professor Sarah Stanbury, a tenured professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, and got some great advice that will hopefully ease your mind and give you confidence when asking for a recommendation.

Who to ask

As a college student, you’re going to encounter lots of professors that you will form different relationships with, so you’ll have to determine who is the best fit. “My biggest tip is to choose someone who knows something unique, special, and personal about you. Grad school committees and employers read hundreds of applications, and they can tell when the letter is genuine or when it is the traditional letter the teacher has written for every other student,” says Anna doCurral, a recent graduate of Assumption college who is currently working toward her Master’s Degree at Boston College. “You want someone writing your recommendation who has something to say about you that will set you apart from everyone else—a personal touch!”

Related: 7 Steps to a Stellar Grad School Application

You want to ask a professor who knows you on a personal basis, which means the work has to start long before you actually ask. “My main advice for any student seeking a letter of recommendation from a professor: make yourself known!” says Professor Stanbury. “When [professors] are asked to write a letter, we want to tell a story about that student that makes her into an individual.” Go to office hours, speak up in class, and choose someone who has seen you challenged. “When we are asked to write a letter, we want to tell a story about that student that makes her into an individual,” says Professor Stanbury. “What’s to make her look different from hundreds of other students? I want to know who she is, and want to have a story or two to tell about her.” If you’re applying to grad school, pick a professor in your major who has seen you face challenges and work to overcome them. If it’s for a job application, choose a professor from a major that relates to the field you are trying to work in.

How to ask

When it comes time to finally ask if they will write on your behalf, the most important thing to do is give them PLENTY of time. “There is nothing worse than saying you need a letter in a week,” says Anna. “Professors are busy and have their own lives—poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on their part! You’ll get a better, more thoughtful letter if you give them time to think about it.” You should ask at least six months in advance, two months if you’re able. If you’re on a shorter time period than a month, ask as soon as possible to give them as much time as you can.

If you are on campus and are able to, ask the professor in person to write on your behalf. If not, asking over email is totally fine. When you’re drafting the email, Anna suggests starting out with a “teachers’ pet” type of line, something along the lines of “I hope your recent conference went well” or “I hope your daughter’s birthday party over the weekend went well!” Let them know that you listen to what they say even when it doesn’t relate to what they teach.

Asking for a favor can be intimidating, but you don’t panic. “Students should never feel uncomfortable asking for a letter,” says Professor Stanbury. “We are educating students so that they can move on from college and pursue advanced degree programs, jobs, or internships; letting others know about their skills and credentials is part of the business of educating.” That being said, never make it sound like you assume a yes is coming. Don’t get caught up in all the complimenting and explanation that you forget what you are there for! Ask firmly and clearly: “Would you write a letter of recommendation on my behalf?” From there, go into why you chose them specifically, making sure to highlight that they have challenged you, making you into a better student. How have you learned from them, and how have you changed from taking their class? Finally, at the end make sure to say thank you! It’s such a little thing, but expressing gratitude is so important.

What to give them

When asking, include the specific details of the recommendation in the email so that your professor knows exactly what is expected of them. When you need it finished, what form it will be in, where it needs to be sent, and any special information or qualities they should highlight. If the letter needs to be sent in by mail, offer to provide them with an envelope and postage. If you’re asking in person, send them an email immediately after with all this information, or just include it in the initial email if you’re not in person.

The information you give a professor will change depending on what you’re asking them for. “When asking for a letter, be aware that not all recommendations are the same,” Professor Stanbury says. “A recommendation for Study Abroad is relatively easy to write… Recommendations for graduate school are another thing altogether. Most graduate programs are highly competitive, and securing strong letters that can speak to your achievements may well make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.”

Try to give your professor something concrete they can reference when writing. A resume is a great way to show who you are outside the classroom, and if appropriate, some writing samples are good as well. “A student who was applying to graduate school recently sent me, as part of his materials, copies of all the papers he had written in my classes,” says Professor Stanbury. “Having those papers in front of me was very helpful when it came to writing his letter. I was able to refer to specific essays and quote turns of phrase—something that would have been much more difficult to do without those essays for reference.”

After you ask

You should also send them a reminder email if you’ve given them a long time to write it. Around two weeks before it is due, send them a quick email, gently checking in and reminding them of the recommendation and asking if they need anything from you to complete it. Don’t do this more than once, however, unless you’ve given them more than two months to write it. Trust that they have control of the situation and are organized and on track without nagging them constantly.

How to say thank you

Once the recommendation is finished, be sure to send a thank you email, and if you want to be really fancy a handwritten thank you note will really impress them. And keep them posted on how you make out! In agreeing to write on your behalf they are taking an active role in your future, and they most definitely want to know where you end up.

Every professor you are taught by has written a letter of recommendation at some point, so don’t freak out when it comes time to ask for one. They are more invested in your education than anyone else, because success on your end is success for them, and they want nothing more than for their students to use the knowledge they have taught to better the world.