CETL Learning Tips: How to request a letter of recommendation

You qualify for a scholarship or want to apply for an internship. Often listed with these application materials is a request for letters of recommendation, which often come from your professors. Requesting a letter from a professor may seem tricky if you are early in your college work and haven’t yet fostered closer connections with your instructors.

While I recommend making those connections through office hours (even virtually in our current COVID-19 context), you can still request a letter in a way that will help your professor write an effective letter. Some of these and more are reflected in a form Dr. Kelly Hogan gives her students to help her write their letters.

Provide key work information and class work samples. At the end of my sophomore year, I decided to apply for a scholarship in my major, so it was important that I got a letter of recommendation from a professor in that department. I really enjoyed a past literature class, but it was a general education course from two semesters ago. I dropped by her office hours to request a letter, but also gave her two assignments I did for that class. She said this was incredibly helpful. I still don’t know if she remembered me, but by having my work in front of her, she could see evidence of my thinking and capabilities.

Provide instructions for the whole process, including due dates and how to submit the letter. Walk through the whole process of writing and submitting the letter, and provide instructions accordingly. This mostly involves when it is due and where to submit it (they normally do not give these letters to you since they are supposed to be confidential), but might also include length, format (PDF or Word document), whether it needs a handwritten signature, etc.

Provide context, and suggest specific highlights. Share why you want or need this opportunity beyond needing the money or line on your resume. What opportunities will this scholarship or internship make available? What work do you hope to do? What are your aspirations and interests? Highlight anything in particular that is interesting about it, as expressing your enthusiasm helps strengthen the recommendation.

Include a resume and any other details about yourself, such as life experiences, responsibilities and interests. Resumes are helpful, but they don’t have to be everything if you don’t have a lot of work or volunteer experience. How have you dealt with a difficult situation in the past? Do you often care for your siblings? Do you have a massive social media following? Even bringing these non-academic views into your identity can help set yourself apart from other applicants.

Offer to meet, if possible. Office hours are a perfect opportunity to talk about the letter in real time (even during COVID-19, many professors regularly hold virtual office hours or are willing to meet online), which may provide a valuable exchange of ideas and build understanding. This won’t always be possible, especially for professors who have hundreds of students a semester, but it doesn’t hurt to offer. It might be a simple sentence in the request email, such as, “If you are available, I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss this further.”

Check in a couple of days before the due date. Even very organized professionals sometimes miss a due date, so safeguard your complete application by emailing your recommendation writer a couple of days before the due date to confirm they have submitted it. This gives them enough time to write it without pestering them too long before the due date. Sometimes your application system will tell you who has submitted letters (such as portals for graduate school applications), but not always.

Christina Moore
Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Find more Learning Tips at oakland.edu/teachingtips.