Asking The Professor To Write The Letter Of Recommendation


Commentary by Jessica J. Eckstein, Ph.D. (2009)
basic outline of steps derived from Dawn O. Braithwaite, Ph.D. (1998)
Professors are often asked to write letters of recommendation for students. Therefore, to make our jobs
much easier (and your letter much better!), here are some tips for getting the letter. The overall gist is
that  the  student  must  take  the  initiative  in  the  process.  Each  professor’s  preferences  will  differ,  but  at  a  
bare minimum, here are the guidelines to follow:
Asking  the  professor  to  write  the  letter…
1. Ask in person.
a. The key here is to ASK – no one owes you a letter. Make your request just that – as
though you are asking a favor – because  you  are.  In  turn,  also  be  willing  to  take  “no”  for  
an answer;;  it  doesn’t  mean  you’re  a  bad  person  – it just means that (for whatever reason)
they  can’t  write  you  a  letter.
b. The second key is IN PERSON – don’t  leave  a  request  under  a  door,  don’t  grab  a  
professor after class or in the hallway. Sign up for an appointment with them and ask in
person. It may be acceptable to make this appointment via email.
2. Ask if they would be able to write you a favorable letter of recommendation.
a. Of course we can agree to write you “a letter,” but you should probably check ahead of
time (because  we  don’t  have  to  show  it  to  you)  if  it  will  be  positive.  A  professor  will  
definitely tell you if they can do this or not. When I ask for letters, I always frame it as,
“Do  you  think  you  would  be  able  to  write  me  a  positive  letter?”  That  way,  I  know  if I
need  to  go  elsewhere  to  get  the  letters  that  will  help  me  excel.  Also,  if  they  don’t  have  
anything  particularly  great  to  say  about  you,  many  professors  will  write  “neutral”  or  not  
glowing letters. You should know that when someone reads anything but a letter that
praises  you,  it’s  code  for  “don’t  hire/accept/consider”  this  person.  We  don’t  have  to  say  
mean/negative things  to  write  you  a  “bad”  letter. So check this first! 
3. Ask if they can write you a specific letter.
a. As mentioned (2a), lacking positive specifics will say to the reader that the recommender
either  doesn’t  know you well enough to be writing your letter and/or  doesn’t  have  
anything positive to say about you in a specific context. Both could bode poorly for you
if expressed (or unexpressed) in a letter.
b. If the professor tells you (remember, you asked them this) that they are unable to be
specific, ask  someone  else.  It’s  not  a  bad  thing;;  you’re  just  trying  to  get  the  best  letter  
possible –from whomever.


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