Asking Professors for Recommendations and/or References

Various opportunities, including graduate study, scholarship applications, and employment, often require recommendations– generally ranging from one to three–from people who know you.

These recommendations may take the form of letters, forms, and/or sometimes phone calls.

Before you apply to graduate study, scholarships, or jobs, you will want to have a plan for obtaining these recommendations.

How to Ask Professors for Recommendations and/or References

  1. Plan ahead: it’s never too early to think about who knows you and your work. A freshman who gets to know one professor each term will have eight potential recommenders senior year. Your most useful recommenders will have taught you more than once and be able to talk about your good work on major papers, projects, or presentations.
  2. Ask whether a potential recommender feels like they know you and your work well enough to be able to provide a strong reference on your behalf. (If not, ask someone else.)
  3. Remind your recommenders, preferably in writing, what courses you took with them and what work from those courses best reflects your academic accomplishments and interests. If you produced a particularly good paper, presentation, project, etc., provide a copy to refresh their memory. 
  4. Inform your recommenders about you. Give them a copy of your resume. Fill them in on accomplishments, honors, clubs or activities, coursework, and relevant work or volunteer experience—and mention anything you’d like them to stress in their recommendation. 
  5. Educate your recommenders about the job, degree program, or opportunity, and why it is a good match for you. Email useful information like the job description, scholarship criteria, admission requirements, etc. For Ph.D. programs, it helps to give recommenders a list of faculty and their areas of specialization at each school so their letters can demonstrate that your research interests would let you work with multiple scholars—something admissions committees often value.
  6. Deliver a copy of your resume or application statement, a clear list of deadlines and submission procedures, and your contact information in case of questions. Most recommendations get submitted online; make sure your part of all applications will be ready in time for recommenders to submit all their letters at once. If paper submission is required, include necessary forms and stamped addressed envelopes.
  7. Follow up before the deadline if needed to make sure your letters have been sent. (Professors get very busy.) Don’t forget to express thanks afterwards. (Professors also welcome hearing your good news.) Good luck!

Questions? Consult your advisor, the English and Linguistics website, or the Center for Career and Professional Development.