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How to get good recommendation letters

Back to: Letters of recommendation

Who to ask

University faculty and supervisors from jobs, internships and volunteer activities are good candidates. An adult professional who has known you for a long time (not a family member) is also possible. Make a list of five good reference possibilities.

If you are going to ask university faculty to write you a recommendation, ask yourself if they will remember you well enough to write anything but a very general letter. Can they evaluate you academically?

  • Did you actively participate in class?
  • Did you ask questions and show interest and intellectual curiosity?
  • Did you develop a good relationship with the instructor?
  • Did you complete a team or an independent project?
  • What did you accomplish in the class that would interest an employer or a university?

When to ask

Just like students, faculty members experience especially busy periods so ask well in advance. Six weeks to a month ahead is best. You might consider asking a faculty member for a recommendation just after you’ve completed an especially successful class – while you are both still enthused. That avoids the panic situation when your deadline is approaching and you don’t have the letters you need. The professor or instructor can write a good letter and you can later submit it with your application. You can also ask them to update it when you are applying for a specific program or job. That will enable them to target the letter, but will take much less time than creating an entirely new letter.

How to ask

You can either ask in person or send an email and ask if you can come by during office hours to request a recommendation letter. Seeing them in person will help them remember you and give you a chance to reconnect and tell them a bit about what you’ve been doing and your future plans. Even more importantly, it is harder to say no to someone who is standing in front of you!

Bringing the following will help them write strong, targeted letters.

  • A copy of the job requirements, a job description or information about the university program you are applying for
  • A copy of your CV and cover letter, letter of motivation or application
  • A short summary of your work in their class
  • Directions to this website if they would like to see guidelines and samples (See Faculty recommendation letters)

If the instructor or professor asks you to draft the letter, begin with one of the sample letters on this site and customize it for your particular situation.

Give the faculty member a specific date when you need the letter. (Make sure it is at least 10 days ahead of your actual deadline so you have time to remind them if you haven’t received it.) There is a tendency for students to wait until the last minute either because they are disorganized or they are uncomfortable asking. Every faculty member has had to ask for recommendation letters at some point so they understand the problem.

If the letter has to be sent directly, provide all the information needed to submit it online. If it is to be sent by post, make sure they have the necessary information and provide an addressed and stamped envelope.


Follow up

Send a follow-up email if you don’t receive the letter by your deadline. (See sample below)

After you receive the letter, send a thank you email and later let them know the results of your search.

Important! If you notice any reluctance to write the letter, find someone else. You want the strongest letters possible. Don’t worry too much if they decline. There can be many reasons that have nothing to do with you.

Sample reminder letter

Dear Dr/Professor __________,

I’m writing to see if it will still be possible for you to write a recommendation letter for me. My application must be submitted by Friday, 31 May.

I understand this is a very busy time for you and I very much appreciate your help.

Best regards,

Back to: Letters of recommendation