How To Ask a Professor For a Letter Of Recommendation For Grad School

Graduate Recommendation letter

An important part of the admissions process for graduate school, now more than ever in a time when in-person interviews aren’t possible, is the letter of recommendation. The admissions process is about figuring out who you are as a candidate, and you want to put together a grad school application that shows who you are and why your graduate application is different from the others they are reading.  It can feel like the letter of recommendation is the one piece of an application that is out of your control, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just left up to chance. There are many things you can do to help ensure that you get a recommendation letter that is the perfect addition to your grad school application—something that enhances who you are as a candidate, helps articulate aspects of your personality that might otherwise be missing, and describes your approach to academic life in a way that is both useful and applicable to your application for graduate school at large.

At first, you may feel intimidated when you think about asking for a recommendation letter for your application for grad school, but there’s no need to worry! It is natural to feel overwhelmed at asking someone to write a recommendation letter, but anyone in academia is used to being asked to write or edit letters of recommendation when students are preparing applications, especially for grad school, so the most important thing is to make sure that you’re asking the right person and you’re asking in the right way. Let’s start at the beginning.

What to consider when determining which professor to ask for a recommendation letter:

  • Who knows you as a student?
    • Who have you interacted with on a regular basis? Is there a course where you’ve regularly attended office hours? Did you have an opportunity to work directly on a project with anyone?
  • Area of study
    • What are you going to study? It’s not as simple as saying you’re putting together an application for grad school to study history so you need someone in that field to write your letter. It’s more about being thoughtful in your approach and setting the stage for that. For example, maybe you are putting together a graduate application for a computer science program but you are a history major at present. Then perhaps it’s valuable to consider someone you’ve studied under in a math or science subject, which could show your facility with new areas outside of your initial concentration.
  • Don’t worry too much about prominence or notability
    • It can be tempting to ask the most notable or the most prominent person in your field that you’ve interacted with, but the most important thing is that your letter is written by someone who knows you and offers something unique to your graduate application. If this person has had more limited interactions with you than someone who is less prominent but actually knows you better, you should go with the person who actually has a point of view on you specifically to add new depth to your application for grad school.
  • Who knows you as a person?
    • In addition to picking someone who knows you better, consider who may be able to help showcase a unique component of your personality. What aspect of who you are is currently not as present in your grad school application? Maybe you’ve interacted frequently with two people you could ask, but one was able to see you really apply yourself to an area that didn’t come naturally to you. This is a great opportunity to help bring specific traits—in this case, determination in the face of adversity—to the forefront of your application, which any graduate admissions committee would love to read about.

Now that you’ve thought about these things, you should have a better sense of who you might want to ask. With that in mind, let’s talk about how to actually go about doing the asking.

How To Ask A Professor For A Letter Of Recommendation

Once you have figured out exactly what you are asking, then you can finally make the ask. Getting a great letter of recommendation from professors is as much about who you ask as it is how you ask. When it comes to how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Key points on how to ask a professor for recommendation letter:

  • Ask politely but specifically
    • You want to be clear about what you’re hoping for. For example, if you want something that really highlights your leadership abilities and this is someone who can speak to that, don’t hesitate to offer that guidance.
  • Be clear that you’re asking them to write you an original letter
    • More and more people these days are being asked to write their own letters of recommendation for applications, especially for grad school, and then are asked to pass them along for signature, but it can be very obvious to the reader that this isn’t an outside perspective, so don’t hesitate to be clear that you’re asking for an original letter to be written on your behalf.
  • Phrase your ask in a positive way
    • Don’t be afraid to phrase the question by asking if they are willing to write you a positive letter of recommendation. You would rather have someone say no than have them write something that is not showing you in the most positive light possible.
  • Provide some context in writing
    • Make sure to say a little bit about where you’re applying, what you want to pursue, and why. In all likelihood, this person is going to be asked to write more than one letter, and so giving a baseline of information about what your specific circumstances are will not only allow for a more specific letter, but it will also provide a reference when the letter itself is actually being written.

There is no right way to approach the ask itself—some people are more comfortable asking in person, others prefer to email, or you may not have the option to do that and may feel you should ask over the phone. Regardless of the actual communication path you choose to pursue, make sure you give whoever you ask plenty of notice. This way there will be time to put together a thoughtful, considered recommendation letter that doesn’t feel generic or rushed.

Asking a Professor For a Letter Of Recommendation: Summary

Recommendation letters are an important part of the admissions process, and graduate school applications are no different. When it comes to how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation for grad school, you want to be deliberate, intentional, and clear about your expectations. In general, academics want to write positive recommendation letters for students who work hard to apply themselves and who wish to pursue additional education, so don’t be shy! If you are prepared when it comes to asking a professor for a letter of recommendation, you will be able to get what you need for your graduate school application with grace and ease, which will then lead to a higher chance of admission!

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