How to Ask for a Reference from your Professor

How to ask your professor for a reference or letter of recommendation.

How to ask for a Reference or Letter of Recommendation

You’re applying for a scholarship, study abroad, grad school, or a job, and you need to submit a letter of reference (aka letter of recommendation, character reference, letter of support, or academic reference) from a professor. Now you have to ask your prof for the letter! How do you do that?

Which Professor Should I ask for My Reference?

You should definitely ask for the reference from a professor who will write something positive about you. How can you find this out? It’s simple! When you approach them for a reference, just ask if they would be willing to write a positive reference letter for you.

You also want to ask a professor who knows you and can write a detailed letter. A letter that says, “this student was in my class and got an A” is fine. But wouldn’t you rather have a letter that talks about you with specific details? Something more like, “this student was in my class and got an A because of their performance. Their term paper was clearly written and well-organized, as were all of their assignments. They scored in the top 10% of students on the final exam.”

You can also make (gentle) suggestions about what they can write about you. Remind your professor of the encouraging comments they wrote on your paper, or that you scored the highest grade on the midterm, or whatever else they can highlight in the letter.

General Information About Asking for a Reference

These are the basics: You are asking for a favour from your professor. Make sure you give them the time and information they need to help you with a minimum of effort. This post is really about how you can make this easier for them, so they will be happy to write you a positive letter of reference.

First, you’re going to choose how you will ask for the reference. Ideally, you will ask them in person and then follow up with an email. However, I recognize that’s not always possible, so you can also start with the email. Below, I’ve described how you can ask via email, but feel free to take this first step in-person and then write a follow-up email with all the details.

Professional Reference vs. Academic Reference

There are different types of references and letters of recommendation. A professional reference should be from a current or past employer or supervisor, whether it’s for paid or unpaid work.

Does an academic reference have to be from a professor? Yes, it should be! An academic reference needs to be from someone who can speak to your academic skills. Although a TA or other support person may be able to speak to your academic skills, the expectation is that you have a professor’s reference. This is why it’s so important to make sure you are attending office hours and getting to know a few of your professors!

Teaching Assistant Reference Letters

You should only get a reference from a TA (teaching assistant) if you have no other options. You should also consider checking if it will be accepted. For example, if you are applying for a scholarship, read all their requirements to see what it says. If it’s not clear from the requirements whether they’ll accept a TA’s recommendation, it is probably be a good idea to reach out to the scholarship provider to check.

When I was an academic advisor, students would request reference letters from me. Unfortunately, in that position I only had access to their transcripts and couldn’t speak to their academic skills beyond that. Make sure that you are requesting references from professors who have seen how good your work can be and can speak to your general awesomeness!

Writing an Email to ask for a Reference or Letter of Recommendation

You want to make sure that you are polite and professional in your request. Your professor may have been asked to write dozens of letters or provide multiple references, and a high-quality reference takes time to write. And of course, you want them to spend time on your reference so that it helps you in whatever you are competing for.

Your first question is whether the professor is willing and available to write a positive letter of reference. This is the part that you can easily do in person. Let your professor know what the reference is for, roughly what is required, and the deadline. Once they agree, then you can follow up with an email with all the details.

Think about what your professor needs to know to write the reference, and make sure to include that in the follow-up email:
*what the reference is for (ie scholarship, job, grad school, etc)
*requirements of the reference (there aren’t always requirements listed, but if there are make sure you include them)
*how to submit (ie email, online form, paper letter, PDF or Word doc, etc)

What Will Be in the Letter of Recommendation or Reference?

Your professor can only speak to things they know about you – they are not able to speak to things that they haven’t seen you do. It is okay for you to remind them of who you are and what kind of student you are, especially if it has been a long time or even several years since you worked with them. If it has been some time, you can remind them in the body of the email and even attach one of your past papers and/or a transcript to remind them of who you were and how you performed in their class. If you went to office hours and got to know them a little, you should also remind them of that.

You can also (politely) ask them to talk about specific things in your reference if you think they are particularly relevant. For example, if you are applying for grad school, you may want them to speak more about your academic research and writing skills. On the other hand, if you are applying for a job, you may want them to speak to your ability to analyze and synthesize texts as well as meeting deadlines.

Letter of Recommendation/Reference Request Checklist

  • Did you remind them where they know you from?
  • Did you remind them what they know about you?
  • Provide details of reference (what’s needed)?
  • Purpose of reference?
  • Is your email polite and professional?
  • Is it clear from the first sentence of the email what you are asking for? 
  • Are you sure they will say positive things? 
  • Deadline/due date? 
  • Format and any other requirements (PDF/word, emai/mail, etc)?
  • How do they submit it?

What if Your Professor Says “No”?

Unfortunately, this happens. Your professor might not feel that they know you well enough to provide a reference. They may be too busy, or have too many upcoming deadlines, or maybe they need more time.

The best way to avoid this is prevention. Getting to know your professors and building those relationships ahead of time is the best way to make sure you can get references when you need them. This is something you should work on right from the start of the semester – read this post for more tips on how to start your semester off right!

But, if your professor does not want to give you a reference, it’s time to move on to the next person. Is there another professor or employer that you can ask? I have also worked with students who were not able to get references from their undergrad professors, so they ended up doing a post-grad diploma before they could apply to a Masters program. I was one of these students. It’s very frustrating to have to go back to school to be able to get an academic reference. That’s why you want to work on this now. Your bachelors degree is the best time to build those references in case you need them later.

Where can I learn more?

You may also find this post on The Top 5 People to Get to Know at University helpful as you navigate your university career.

8 thoughts on “How to Ask for a Reference from your Professor

  1. Love the post! When I was applying for my masters degree I felt so lost and didn’t know how to proceed with asking for a recommendation letter. I could’ve definitely benefited from your advice ♥️

    1. I know! It can be really hard, because most students don’t even know they might need these things later. It sounds like you figured it out, though! I had to take more courses in between my bachelors and masters just to get a reference! So hopefully this will help some folks avoid that.

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