Archived: Asking a professor for a reference letter

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If you’re applying for a scholarship, a job, or for a graduate program any time soon, you’re probably going to need at least one reference letter. If you’ve never asked for a reference letter before, the idea can be a little intimidating – but don’t worry. The process isn’t as scary as it might seem, especially if you go into it armed with our guidelines to asking for a reference letter.

Who do I ask?

The best person to ask for a reference is someone who can speak to your qualifications, strengths, and suitability as a candidate. So put some thought into who you’re going to ask – if it helps, sit down and make a list of people who have seen you in action doing what you do best. Whoever it is, make sure they’re the best person to advocate for you and talk about what a shining star of wonder we all know you to be. We’ll be focusing on how to ask your professor for a reference letter in this post, but a lot of the information is transferable if you’re asking, say, a boss or mentor.

If you’re asking for a reference letter from a professor, try to ask someone whose classes you’ve done well in and whose classes you’ve taken more than once. You’ve got better odds if you’ve dropped into your professor’s office hours, too, but it’s not a requirement.

What do I need?

Once you’ve picked who you’re going to ask, the next step is collecting some information. Here’s a couple of things you’ll want to get together:

  • What [thing you’re applying for] is, along with any relevant background about [thing] that your letter-writer may need to know.
  • An idea of why you’re applying for [thing], why you’re excited or passionate about [thing], and what you’re looking forward to getting out of [thing].
  • Important details about the application process for [thing], such as the submission deadline and method (lettermail or online?), and any additional documents they may need. Take careful note of the deadline and give your letter-writer lots of time to spare (2-4 weeks is a good rule of thumb).

Once you’ve equipped yourself with these things, you’re ready to ask for your reference letter.

How do I ask?

The answer to the next burning question you all have is: yes, you really should meet with your professor in person to ask. It gives you a chance to explain about those things we talked about above, and you’ll be able to answer any questions your prof might have on the spot. It’s also great if you can explain why you came to that professor specifically and how they’ve helped your academic growth.

That said, we won’t blame you if you write an email instead. Sometimes finding a time to meet that works for both you and the prof is like nailing Jell-o to a tree. If that’s the case, make sure your email is polite, professional, and includes some background specifics in your request. At the very least, include who you are and which class/section you’re in – your professor may need that info to put a face to your name.

One thing to keep in mind is that writing a letter of reference is totally voluntary. If your chosen letter-writer seems reluctant for whatever reason, ask someone else. There are a million reasons someone might decline to write a letter of reference, and you want your reference to be a good one – a lukewarm or unenthusiastic reference can be as bad as no reference at all. If someone doesn’t want to provide a reference for you, find someone else (and try not to take it too personally).

What else should I know?

Whether you end up asking in person or through email, there’s a few more things you can have on-hand that will help once the prof has agreed to write a reference letter (which hopefully they will!). It can help to provide a bullet point list of things like projects you’re worked on, key skills, or anything else that makes you well-suited to the thing you’re applying for – that can help them write the letter and include the important points. You should also be ready to speak to your motivations for applying and why you’re excited about it – taken all together, these things can give the prof an idea of what to include in the letter. If there’s anything in particular you’d like them to highlight in the letter, you can mention it – just remember that it’s ultimately up to them if they want to include that information.

Once someone has agreed to write a letter for you, you want to make it as easy as possible for them. If there’s anything you can do yourself to get the ball rolling, do it: that could mean pre-addressing and stamping an envelope and dropping it off at the faculty office, or letting your prof know that you will come by and pick it up when it’s ready.

Lastly, don’t forgot to say thank you! A good reference letter can take a couple of hours to write, and a professor is doing you a favour by spending that time and effort, so make sure you express your gratitude. And if your application is successful, it’s always nice to let the prof know. It lets them know that they helped you out, and gives you a chance to show that you’re appreciative for the help.

Need a little more guidance to get you through the wild and wacky world of job/grad/scholarship applications? We recommend that you head on over to Mount Royal’s Career Services.