How To Ask for a Recommendation Letter

Asking for a letter of recommendation can be tricky. You may need one for graduate school, for a scholarship, or even for a job. But you’re not sure whom to ask — or how best to approach someone about writing a letter of recommendation.

By following the steps below, however, you should be able to set yourself up for getting a strong letter of recommendation from someone who can really speak to your strengths.

(Because no one wants a weak letter of recommendation that was obviously put together at the last minute, right?)

Try to build a relationship early with a professor or other mentor.

If you know you want to go to medical school, start getting to know a professor or two as soon as you can when you’re in college. You may also want to consider working in an academic department, lab, or library where you can start building connections. The more you get to know someone, the better they can speak about your strengths.

When you do ask, ask in person using very specific language.

Try asking: “Would you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation for (insert position/school/etc.)?” You want to make sure you get a good letter, not just any letter. And, while you may be a little nervous asking this in person, consider which is worse: having a moment or two of awkwardness if the person says “no,” or having a bad letter of recommendation accompany all your job or graduate school materials.

Follow up soon after (within a day or two) with details and the same language.

Send an email or leave a voice mail, thanking your recommender for agreeing to write a strong letter of recommendation to ABC place by XYZ date. Additionally, send your recommender (via email or hard copy) materials they may need:

  • A copy of your resume
  • Pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for them to mail the letter(s) in
  • Information on the program or job you are applying for
  • Contact information for whom the letter needs to be sent/addressed to
  • Deadline by which the materials need to be sent

Follow up before the deadline to make sure things are on track.

Just like you, your recommender may sometimes wait until the last minute or forget about an upcoming deadline. Send a friendly email, leave a voice mail, or stop by in person and see if they need anything additional from you in order to get your letter sent on time. Doing so can be a great way to prevent any last-minute problems while also serving as a gentle reminder about the upcoming deadline.

Send a thank-you note.

It may sound old-fashioned, but sending a thank-you note is a must. Writing letters of recommendation take a lot of time, and you should let your recommender know how grateful you are for their efforts.

Call the graduate school, job, scholarship fund, etc., to make sure your materials were received.

Sometimes, the unexpected happens: things get lost in the mail, lost in an office, or mislabeled. Make sure your letter has arrived at its intended destination so that your materials can be processed as soon as possible.

One last note: don’t expect to see your letter of recommendation.

No matter how much you may want to see what your recommender wrote, just let it go. Any letter you include in an application packet should have a signature across the envelope seal; anything your recommender sent in on their own probably won’t cross your desk either. Trust that your work has paid off and that your recommender wrote a great letter (which is what you asked for, right?) — even if you never get to see it.