How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

In previous posts I discussed point number one of graduate school recommendation letters:

NEVER ASK A TA TO WRITE ONE OF YOUR LETTERS!

To review the point of those posts:  Your letters should come from tenure-line faculty.  That means, someone whose title is either a) Assistant Professor, b) Associate Professor, or c) Professor.  Any additional words attached to those titles, such as “Adjunct,” “Visiting,” “Research,” etc. should almost always remove them from your list of letter writers.  The reason?  Graduate programs want to see the recommendations of experts who have completed the full arc of an academic career, from graduate school through permanent professional employment.  Those who have not generally have less experience on which to base their judgment of student potential.

Of course in a pinch, a Visiting, or Adjunct faculty can serve, and may well write you a wonderful letter.  Just be aware they are not in the very top tier of letter writer status, and try to limit such writers to one slot out of three.

In this post, I want to give you a script for asking for that letter of recommendation.

Preliminary Step one:  Do well in the professor’s class.  Visit her/his office hours.  Make sure she/he knows you as an individual.

Preliminary Step two:  Let the professor know in advance that you have graduate school plans and aspirations.  Make the professor part of your “team” of supporters.  Get her/him invested in your success.

Step one:  When the application stage comes schedule an appointment with the professor at least one month, and preferably two months, before the first deadline.

Step two:  Bring with you a copy of any work you did for the professor, as long as it is good.  A term paper that got an A grade is ideal.  Be prepared to remind the professor which class you were in, which term, and any distinguishing features of your performance in the class

Step three:  Explain in concise and well organized terms your concrete plans for graduate school applications, including the schools to which you want to apply, which programs and why, and your ideas for thesis/dissertation topics.  Do not ramble.  Do not digress.  Do not self-deprecate.

Step four:  Ask the professor if she/he would be willing to write a letter for you.

Step five:  If she/he expresses any reservation of any kind, politely thank her/him for her/his time, and leave.  Find another letter writer.  NEVER try to persuade someone to write for you.

Step six:  If she/he responds enthusiastically, lay out the general timeline, ask for advice on how to proceed and strengthen your application, and for any suggestions as to good programs and funding sources.

Step seven:  After leaving, follow up with an email.  The email should:

a)  thank the professor for their willingness to write for you

b) include a copy of your personal essay/statement of purpose

c) include an excel spreadsheet that clearly lists, for each of the 5 or more programs to which you are applying (and yes, you should apply to at least 5):

c1. The program

c2. The deadline

c3. The contact person

c4. The means of submitting the letter

Special Note:  You do NOT need to provide stamped envelopes for your letter writers!  It is a professor’s job to write these letters and the university pays all postage for letters of recommendation.

Step eight:  Repeat the above with two other faculty members, for a total of three letter writers.  If possible, make sure your letter writers come from relevant fields.  IE, if you are applying to do a Ph.D. in Japan anthropology, have at least one letter from an Anthropology faculty, and one from a Japan studies faculty.

However, it is also OK to change fields!  If you wish to go to graduate school in a new field that you did not study in your undergraduate days, that is FINE.  Then just ask your letter writers to focus on your general aptitude and potential for advanced work.

Step nine: enthusiastically accept comments and criticisms of your essay/statement of purpose from your letter writers if they have any.  Be willing to revise your essay.  Take your ego out of it and be grateful for constructive criticism.  You may submit a new essay all the way up to the application deadline.

Step ten:  Let your letter writers know the outcomes.  And thank them again.

Do all this and your letter writers will stay excited and invested in your success.   And their letters will reflect that.

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About karenkelsky

I am the McNair Advisor in the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program. I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and have had tenured positions in four departments. I have helped scores of students get into and succeed in graduate programs around the country. I'll be sharing 20 years of information and skills here. When I'm not doing this, I make and sell jewelry and explore Eugene with my partner and two kids. View all posts by karenkelsky

3 responses to “How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

  • Adam

    Well, I have a problem with no good solution. I have two potential LORs that will be good, but for the third I either can ask a professor whose class I received an A in but who doesn’t know me from Adam or a post-doc who I’ve been assisting. Which is preferable? Is asking a post-doc like asking a TA?

    • karenkelsky

      The Postdoc will work well, in this case. A postdoc is a large step up from a TA because a postdoc has a Ph.D., and in the sciences, has a responsible position in a lab. At the same time, I’d advise you to get in touch with the professor also, and have a conversation about it. You might be surprised what the Professor remembers of you, especially if you had to write a paper for the class, etc.

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