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Asking for a letter of reference from a professor is always a little awkward. Usually you don’t know them all that well, you know they’re busy, and you feel they might not even know your name.
As a professor, I get job reference requests all the time. So, let me reassure you that we are very used to this question. However, I don’t automatically write a reference letter for every student who asks for one. Sometimes I don’t think I have enough to say about a student or I simply don’t think I can recommend a certain student to a potential employer.
However, I have a few tips that will help you maximize your chance of getting your professor to say yes to your request for a reference letter.
1. Lay the Foundations Early
It’s true that professors don’t know all of their students by name. When a new semester comes around, the names of our previous students tend to slip away from our minds. But, the students we remember are the ones who actively cultivate relationships with us.
I always advise my students to try to build strong relationships with their teachers. Talking to your professor during open office hours and face-to-face after class are both ideal ways to go about getting to know them on a personal basis. You can also make an effort to email them questions and talk to them about assignment feedback in person.
Most people reading this post will probably be beyond the point where they can lay the foundations. You’re probably looking for a reference for a job you’re applying for right now. So, reflect on which professors you think might know you in person. Select a professor who you remember used your name in class regularly or who you had several good face-to-face conversations with.
If all else fails, choose the professor who you respected most or was most approachable.
2. Ask by Email and In Person
My preference is to get a request via email and a follow-up in person. This helps me and the student to get prepared (mentally, if nothing else) for the in-person conversation.
If you’re still a current student, you can send through an email with the request and let the professor know in the email that you’ll catch up with them after class next week. If you’re a previous student, send the email and offer to come to campus to catch up with the professor during their open office hours.
The email should be an initial request, while the in-person conversation is a personal discussion about what your goals are, what the job would be, and what exactly you’d like the professor to say in the email.
The best time to prime a professor to be your reference is around graduation time. I get several students each year emailing me the week before their graduation ceremony to let me know they graduated and that they’re starting to look for jobs. They then follow-up with a catch me to chat with me about their plans during the graduation ceremony. This is a great way to do it.
3. Get someone to Proofread your Email
Don’t forget that your email makes a big impression on your professor. This should be a formal request for help. The professor doesn’t have to write a letter of reference for you and they aren’t being paid to do it.
Some important things to keep in mind are:
- An email that doesn’t have a subject line might not even be opened.
- Lack of a salutation line (“Hi Simon,”) or ending (“Regards, Chris”) looks lazy and impolite.
Many emails these days look more like text messages than letters. If yours comes across as lazily written and impolite, chances are your professor won’t want to put in any effort to help you out.
So, make a good first impression by writing the email, proofreading it, and preferably asking someone else to look over it to make sure it looks as professional as possible.
4. Provide as much Information as Possible
Because we have so many students, you’re probably just one name in a sea of different names. I can’t tell you how many Jessicas and Emilys I’ve taught in my life.
The biggest reason I say ‘no’ to a request is that I simply don’t know enough about the student. So, to make it easier for the professor to say yes to your request, send them all the information they’ll need to compile a letter of reference.
Three things I like to receive are:
- A photo or scan of your academic transcript. This will list all your grades from your completed subjects. This helps me to write a paragraph on what sort of a student you are academically and the sort of knowledge you should have based on the classes that you have completed.
- A copy of an essay you completed for my class as well as my feedback. This is really helpful. With a copy of my own feedback, I can create a paragraph talking about strengths I had previously identified in your work.
- A copy of the job description for the job you are applying for. I want to be able to assess your fit for the job you are applying for. More importantly, you should want me to speak about how you have the specific skills that the company is looking for. So, a copy of the job description will make your letter of recommendation much better overall.
Some additional things to consider that aren’t necessary, but sometimes helpful include:
- What you would like me to say. If there’s anything specific you’d like added to the letter of reference, ask for it! I will usually oblige your request if I agree that it would be a fair thing to say. If you ask me to say something incorrect or that is a stretch of the imagination, I’ll of course not do it.
- A previous letter of reference. If you’ve already gotten a letter of reference from that professor before for another application, you could also send through the previous letter of reference for them to use as a proforma for the new one.
5. Follow up. Twice.
After you receive the letter of recommendation from your professor (or after they post it directly to the employer), you should follow-up with a thank you right away. Don’t forget that you may need them to be a reference when preparing a job application in the future, so you don’t want to burn your bridges by appearing rude.
One you hear about the outcome of the job, follow-up one more time. If you didn’t get the job, let them know you’re still grateful for their support. If you did get the job, send an excited letter thanking them for being a part of your success. This will help the professor feel like their time and effort in writing the reference was worth their while.
Your past professors could be quality references for your next job. They’re respected members of the community who can attest to your intellect and work-related skills your developed in college. While you might be a little nervous about approaching them, if you follow the steps above your chances of getting a quality letter of recommendation will be high.
Remember that you may not get the first job you apply for. So, continue to cultivate a good relationship with your previous professors so they’ll be on call when you need them.
Chris Drew has been a university professor for over 5 years in Australia and the UK. He teaches education studies and writes about college dissertation projects on his personal blog. You can follow him at: https://helpfulprofessor.com