How To Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

Student asking professor about writing a letter of recommendation

Applying to graduate school is no small task. Before you even apply to schools, you may have to study for and pass an intense exam like the GRE, LSAT or MCAT. Then you complete applications that include detailed forms, essays or portfolios. Eventually, you have to get someone who knows your academic history to vouch for you. Many people wonder how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate school.

What Is a Letter of Recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a vital part of the graduate school application. A faculty member who knows your academic accomplishments and personal qualities writes to the admissions committee at the school or schools you apply to. This letter gets reviewed along with the rest of your graduate school application, including your transcripts, personal essay and test scores.

Many graduate school programs require several letters of recommendation. The multiple points of view shared in these letters give the admissions committee an insight into who you are as a student. Asking professors for a letter of recommendation for grad school can feel awkward or uncomfortable but it is important that respected faculty members refer you to your postbaccalaureate degree program.

What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?

A letter of recommendation shares information that cannot be gleaned from your transcripts alone. This may include information about your personal work ethic, your participation in class, your cooperation with other students and your interest in the topic of study. Your professors may also include information about the skills you have that can be transferred into a graduate program, such as creativity or perseverance.

Many grad schools will have a specific form for professors to complete. Each program is looking for a different set of skills, so it is important that your professor follows the directions of the graduate program you are applying to. For example, some letters of recommendation may ask for specific anecdotal evidence about your skill set. Others may ask a professor to extrapolate what they know about you to how it will impact your success in their program. The reason these letters are so impactful is that they show who you are beyond grades and test scores.

One study of biomedical PhD students shows a strong correlation between students who wrote multiple first-author papers in graduate school and strong ratings from letters of recommendation.This type of research and publishing is important for graduate schools, so strong letters of recommendation can help them determine if you will be an asset to their community and to the field at large.

Who To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

The letters of recommendation that you include with your grad school application can greatly impact your chances of admission. Ask professors to write letters of recommendation based on how well they know you and can speak to your academic performance and classroom experience.

Professors that you ask for a letter of recommendation should:

  • Know you well
  • Think highly of your skills
  • Describe your work and personality in a positive manner
  • Know your academic and professional goals
  • Be respected in their field of study
  • Be a professor you respect
  • Be able to articulate their thoughts about you clearly

If the schools you apply to require multiple letters of recommendation, you have the opportunity to approach several professors with your request to write letters of recommendation. Aim to ask professors who can speak about your specific accomplishments. If you assisted a professor, they may be able to speak to your work during the research or applied experience. A professor who assigned research can share information about your writing and critical thinking.

Give a lot of thought to who you want your letters of recommendation to come from. The professors you ask should be able to speak honestly about your abilities and about whether you are a good fit for the graduate program you are applying for. Asking a professor who does not know you personally is not a good idea. Even if you earned good grades in their class, they will not be able to share about your personality and skills. Their recommendations may come across as insincere or not as strong as a professor who can vouch for both your academic and personal attributes.

What To Do Before Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

Make a list of professors you would like to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Remember that professors are busy teaching classes and doing their own research. Several of the professors on your list may not be able to write you a letter of recommendation, so be sure to have a few options.

This list should include professors who:

  • Have seen your recent work
  • Have taught you in more than one class
  • Have observed you act professionally
  • Know your strengths

Once you have identified who you would like to ask for letters of recommendation, you should set up a time to meet with them. You might attend their office hours.

When To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Remember that any time you are busy with schoolwork, your professors are too. They are teaching courses and grading papers, as well as doing their own research and mentoring other faculty and students. Professors also have their own personal lives they must attend to.

Be sure to ask for a letter of recommendation several months before it is due for your grad school application. A month may seem like enough time to ask in advance but if you do so during a busy time, like finals or midterms, you may struggle finding professors who have time to write you a letter of recommendation. Instead, try to ask six to eight weeks ahead of time and avoid busy times of the school year.

How To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for Grad School

Prepare what you want to say to your professor and how you want to ask them to write a letter of recommendation before you meet in person. Make notes about a few projects or papers that you completed for the professor and what their comments were on your work. You can bring a copy of your work to share with them during your meeting.

There are several materials you should bring to the meeting with your professor. If the professor says yes, you should provide them with:

  • A list of graduate schools you are applying to and the due dates of those applications
  • Your transcripts or at least the grades you received in the professor's class
  • A copy of your resume including academic achievements
  • Your personal statement or a short description of your goals in graduate school and for your career afterward

During this meeting be sure to discuss how the professor should submit the letter of recommendation if they agree to write one. This process will be determined by the schools you are applying to. In some cases, they may need to log in to a special portal and complete their letters digitally. If your professor will need to complete the letter of recommendation online, be sure you collect and share all the information they will need to input. For example, they may need to include your full name and possibly other personal information about you. You can attempt to log in to the portal to see what information is required or you may need to call the school to find out how to provide that information to your professors.

Other applications may be on specific forms with a space for the professor to write their letter. Print these out and bring them with you to your meeting. Before you leave the form with your professor, fill out the rest of the information so it is ready to be turned in as soon as they complete their portion.

Some letters of recommendation can simply be letters written by the professor. They may need to be mailed or placed in a sealed envelope with their signature across the top and submitted along with the rest of your application materials. Arrange a specific day to pick up the letter if it is something you need to turn in. If a professor needs to mail the letter, make sure you provide them with an addressed and stamped envelope they can use. Making the letter of recommendation process a simple as possible shows your professor that you respect and value their time.

How To Follow Up With Your Professor

If something happens during your graduate school application process and you no longer need a letter of recommendation, let your professor know immediately. You may want to stop by during their office hours or send them an email to inform them of the change of status. Professors are busy and they spend their off-hours, including weekends and holidays, writing letters of recommendation. So be courteous and let them know if you are dropping your application to a particular school.

If you have not heard from your professor in the time leading up to when the recommendation is due, you can send one email reminder about a week before the agreed-upon due date. Do not send multiple reminders to your professors who are writing you letters of recommendation. Trust that they have written many letters of recommendations for other students and understand how important it is to get them turned in on time.

Be sure to send your professors who wrote letters of recommendations for you a handwritten card with a personalized note about how much you appreciate their time and everything you have learned from them. Furthermore, consider sending thank you notes to professors who could not write you a letter. Staying in touch with people in your field of study will be important for future networking.

It's important to let the people who wrote letters of recommendation know the outcome of your application. They put in effort on your behalf because they want to help you succeed. Knowing you were able to attend one of your top schools is meaningful for them. This type of communication not only shows good manners, but it is a great form of networking, especially if the professor works in the field of study you are interested in.

The professors at Grand Canyon University are invested in students’ personal and professional goals. They write letters of recommendation to graduate school programs in order to see all GCU students thrive academically.

Note: GCU faculty cannot use GCU letterhead to write letters of recommendation.

1Retrieved from PLOS One, Predictors of Student Productivity in Biomedical Graduate School Applications in February 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.