“What is the best way to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation?”

—Evan P.*, Utah State University (*name changed)

There are definite “dos and don’ts” when requesting a recommendation letter. I have found that students ask for one and then think that’s all they have to do. To get a quality recommendation letter in a timely manner, much more is involved.

Here’s what I recommend:

Get to know them

Before you approach a professor, be sure they know your name. This means you will need to cultivate a relationship first. You will get a much better letter if your professor can write about you with specific examples of your personality and accomplishments. Also, be sure you are asking someone who has seen you at your best.

Ask well ahead of time

If you want your professor to write something positive about you, don’t tell them about it two days before it’s due. Approach your professor at least one month before the deadline.

Give them all the information

Be very clear as to what you need, whom it is for, how it should be sent, and when it is due.

For example, maybe you need a letter that focuses on your leadership skills, and this letter will go directly to the scholarship committee via an online form four weeks from now. Your professor needs to know all of that up front.

To make it easier on you, here’s a quick checklist:

  • What does the letter need to include?
  • To whom is it addressed? (A specific person is better than “To Whom It May Concern.”)
  • How will the letter get there? (By mail or email?)
  • When does it need to be completed?

Help them help you

If you have any specific information you want included, provide that to your professor with all the recommendation letter guidelines. For example, you may want to give them a list of your accomplishments, your current GPA (if it is good), and a statement about your academic and professional goals.

Show your gratitude

After you request a recommendation letter and your professor obliges, write a thank-you note. Yes, you read that correctly. Not a high five, not an email, but an honest-to-goodness thank-you note. You don’t need fancy stationery to make a good impression with your gratitude. This is a step that even the most attentive student often omits and yet it is the most crucial to receiving additional future letters of recommendation.

When you hear whether or not you got the scholarship, internship, or job for which your professor wrote you a letter, let them know how it turned out.

Ask the professor

The professor

Amy Baldwin, MA, is the director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas.