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How to ask for a Letter of Reference

Applications for research funding, graduate schools and some jobs require that you get someone familiar with your work to write a letter of recommendation. College professors are often inundated with requests for these letters. We want to help you be successful and reach your goals. Here are some tips to help us write the most effective letter in your favor.

Think through the application first

Before you approach anyone for a letter of reference, identify the number of people that you will need, and the type of materials that you have to prepare. Doing so helps you figure out what each letter writer's role should be in relation to your application.

Use the application materials to help you choose letter writers

Application materials are your best ally in helping you choose the best letter writers. Some applications encourage you to choose individuals who can speak to your writing or teaching abilities; others will ask about your French language skills; others may want to know about your research experience. Take these instructions seriously when choosing a recommender.

Seek a mix of letter writers, and identify their roles for them

Collectively, your letters should reflect a balanced picture. If the person recommending you is expected to comment on a specific point, be sure he or she knows this.

Choose people who know you well, and help them know you better

Avoid abruptly asking someone for a recommendation letter after class, in the hallway, or via email. Instead, make an appointment to discuss whatever you are applying for and the kind of help needed. If possible, give the letter writer some materials that will help him or her write the letter (e.g. your resume, or a draft of an application essay that you have prepared).

Ask your recommenders well in advance of the deadline

Ask for letters a minimum of three weeks before the deadline. You are asking for a favor and you should respect your recommenders' time and busy schedules.

Respect a "no"

If someone seems to hesitate or says 'no', find another recommender. The person may be inappropriate, too busy, or may not know you well enough to write a strong letter.

Allow the letter to be confidential

On an application form, you will usually be asked to waive your right to see the letter of reference. Do so. The letter will be more convincing to the selection committee.

Provide the letter writer with a deadline and clear instructions on what to do with the letter

Be sure to tell the letter writer to whom the letter is to be addressed. If the letter is going off campus, give him or her a stamped and addressed envelope. Fill in all the forms as best you can. Provide an exact deadline for the letter's completion, and gently remind the letter writer if necessary (a thank you note works wonders). Note that many awards require that you submit letters in a sealed envelope along with the rest of the application. Follow the instructions provided.

Begin to recognize yourself as a professional

When you apply for a job, graduate school, or a scholarship, you are stepping up a rung on a long academic or professional ladder. Act accordingly by taking yourself and your supporters seriously. Articulate specific goals for yourself. Respect and consider any coaching offered.