The Trending Prof

Anita Woods Ph.D., University Educator

How to Ask for a Letter of Reference

I write a lot of letters of reference. A lot is an understatement.  I also get asked to write many more letters of reference of which I can’t always say yes.  To increase your chances of getting a professor (or anyone else for that matter) to write a strong letter of support on your behalf, here are a few DO’s and DON’Ts.


1. Ask far in advance- Depending on the time of year, at least a month is required.  In September, when my days and nights are busy with lectures, a month advance is minimum.

2. Provide all information in a nice package- whether all included in one email, or in a folder (include an unofficial transcript, resume, and details of when you interacted with that professor – i.e. specific lab course as a mentor, etc)

3. Provide an addressed envelope and a stamp.

4. Show your gratitude with a card.  It is nice to know that the additional work was appreciated and a short note is always appropriate.

5. Provide an update on your successes.  It is great to hear when candidates are successful and it helps the letter writer to know if the letters they are writing are helping candidates or not.

6. It is okay to check the status of a letter if the deadline is very soon (i.e. in a day or two).  Assume that the referee is fully aware of the deadline and that they haven’t simply forgotten about you but that they had to re-prioritize to write your letter a little later than planned.


1. Disguise an ask with another “visit”.  Be very forthcoming. If you are going to see a professor to ask for a letter of reference, don’t pretend it is just a drop in to say “Hi”.  We already know what you are going to ask so be honest and state the reason for your visit right away.

2. Wait until the last minute to ask.  How long have you known about the application? There is no reason to wait until the week before to ask. It is disrespectful to assume that the proposed letter writer will drop all the things that they have to do to write a letter that is due in a few days.

3. Pestering the referee isn’t going to get the letters done any faster.  We do these types of things so frequently, we know the deadlines.  We also have other things that also have to happen. If we couldn’t do the letter on time, we wouldn’t have said yes.

4. Ask for one letter for one program with the full intention that you will ask for at least five more soon after. Be forthcoming with how many types of letters you will need and their due dates.

5. Ask for a letter with no regard for whether the letter will be positive or negative. You should care if the referee will write a letter of support or one that compares you as more below average. If they can’t write a strong letter of reference, it is much better to find someone who can.  Reference letters matter a great deal to most application processes.

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