Like most professors and employers, we get asked to write a lot of letters of recommendation for both academic and non-academic jobs, fellowships, grants, promotions, and awards. And some of those requests are better than others.
Despite the fact that academia, like most industries, runs on references and recommendations, no one ever really teaches academics how to ask for a letter of recommendation. Every letter writer has their own idiosyncrasies around what they need to know and how they need to know it. Some people have forms for you to fill out, others have specific rules about who they will write letters for, and still others prefer that you draft the initial letter that they will then edit.
Thus, the first step in asking for a letter of recommendation is figuring out what your letter writers need from you. Of course, to figure that out, you have to contact them in the first place.
Despite these particularities, there is some standard information any letter writer will need from you when deciding whether to write you a letter. Below is our advice for what to send when asking someone for a letter of recommendation. It is adapted from Adrienne’s “how to ask me for a letter of recommendation” instructions on her website and works for most academic and academic-adjacent situations (check out that same link for an example of a fantastic letter of recommendation request. Hint: it isn’t “Hi Professor, can you write me a letter of recommendation? Best, -Student X”). When asking for a letter, send this information first and then ask if there is any additional information they need or process you should follow.
Who are you and what is the thing you are applying for?
This explanation doesn’t have to be lengthy, but remind your letter writer of how you two know each other. What are you asking from them? Are you applying for one thing or many things? Is this a request for several years of letters for academic jobs or a request for a single letter for a one-off fellowship?
Why do you think that person is the best person to recommend you for this thing?
This explanation should be more specific. What exactly makes them best fit to recommend you for this fellowship, job, or opportunity? Graduate students tend to default to their committee members when asking for letters of recommendation, but if this is your situation consider if you have actually seen that committee member since they signed your dissertation form or attended your proposal defense.
Have you taken and done well in several of their classes? Is something they taught you what led you to apply to this job or fellowship? Letting them know this information will also let them see how you are positioning yourself in your application.
When is it due?
We usually prefer a minimum of three weeks notice to write letters, but some people prefer more or less. Err on the side of caution with timing, and contact letter writers at least a month in advance of when you need the letter (note that this might be before the application itself is due—when do you need the actual letter submitted?).
Sometimes if the person has written you a letter before, they can do it on shorter notice. But know that any time you ask for a tight turnaround you are also asking for a rushed and likely weaker letter. You are also using up some good will from that letter writer—so don’t do it more than once!
What is due and how does your letter writer submit it?
Are you asking the person to write a standard letter that they can copy and paste for multiple applications? Will they get a phone call and be expected to speak with someone about you? Is there a form they need to fill out with particular questions? If you don’t know these details already, make sure to ask the place your application is going to before contacting potential letter writers. Your letter writers would rather not take time crafting a letter to find out all the search committee actually needs is a five-minute phone conversation.
Also, be clear on how your letter should get where it needs to go. Will your letter writer get an emailed link to a website where they upload your letter? Does your letter writer need to mail the letter or any additional forms? If the letter needs to be sent via post, give your letter writer an addressed stamped envelope so all they have to do is put it in the mailbox.
If you are asking letter writers for multiple letters, give them a running list with all the applications and due dates—and send a reminder when deadlines approach.
What do you want the letter to highlight?
A list of what about your work you’d like your letter writer to highlight is always helpful. If someone agrees to write your letter, they want it to be the strongest letter possible. The more information you give them, the better they can ensure that.
Ask if there is anything else your letter writer needs
Both of us like to see people’s CVs/resumes so we can put what we know about them in the context of their other work. If you are applying for jobs or fellowships that require you to write a cover letter, share that cover letter with your letter writer (for the academic job market, you don’t need to share each and every cover letter for all 80 jobs you’re applying to this season, but share a standard one at least).
Send a thank you
Professors and employers spend hundreds of hours writing letters of recommendation. All of that labor is unpaid and counts for next to nothing when it comes to tenure or promotion. Sending a brief email or card to thank your letter writers for their mentorship and support is one way you can let them know how much you appreciate their hard work on behalf of your career.
And finally, follow up
So many people forget this! Let your letter writer know how the application went—did you get the fellowship, get short-listed for the job, or know you’re going to try again next year? If you got the thing, they’d love to congratulate you! And if you didn’t, it’s still helpful for your letter writers to know that. They might have some advice on how to improve your chances next time. And if you’re planning to ask them for letters in the future, demonstrating your thoughtfulness, responsibility, organization, and follow-through is key.
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Adrienne Shaw is an assistant professor in Temple University’s Department of Media Studies and Production, a member of the School of Media and Communication graduate faculty, and author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Her current primary project is the LGBTQ Game Archive.
Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire and loves helping progressive, interdisciplinary academics rock their careers and build the worlds they want to see. She is the author of Blood Cultures: Medicine, Media, and Militarisms as well as Book Marketing for Academics.