A good recommendation letter can make or break your next college application. That’s why, knowing how, when, and who to ask for a recommendation letter is critical for achieving your educational and career goals.

We've prepared a step-by-step process for you on how to ask for and receive a great recommendation letter.

What is the difference between a letter of recommendation and a letter of reference?

  1. Letter of recommendation: A letter commending the abilities of a certain candidate that would qualify him/her for a certain opportunity (degree, job, internship, etc.). The letter always addresses a specific requester (university, employer, etc.).
  2. Letter of reference: A generic letter that doesn't address a specific requester and often begins with “To whom it may concern”.

Why would you need an academic letter of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are often requested as an inherent part of any program/ scholarship/ fellowship application. The university requests a letter from a teacher or professor who can attest to your skills and knowledge.

The letter usually includes your academic history, personal attributes, and achievements. A potential employer might request an academic recommendation letter if your academic abilities are relevant to the job description.

Who to ask for an academic recommendation letter?

A previous/current high school teacher or college professor is usually a good candidate. Guidance counselors and academic supervisors may also provide academic letters of recommendation.

When choosing a recommender, you should consider the following:

  1. Select a recommender that you have a kind interpersonal relationship with. Make sure to choose a professor who has the enthusiasm and candor to give you a positive letter of recommendation.
  2. You should also select a teacher that you have known for more than six months to be considered for a solid recommendation.
  3. Another criterion to consider is specialization, it is always smart to choose a teacher who has expertise that is relevant to the degree/ job you are applying for. For instance, if you are applying for a marketing degree, it is only appropriate to ask your marketing professor for a recommendation.

If your first choice for a recommender denies your request, thank them for their consideration and proceed to contact your next choice.

What’s the structure of a recommendation letter?

A typical recommendation letter is about one to two pages in length and usually comprises the following sections:

  • Introduction: The recommender should highlight the details of their relationship with the student and the length of time they have known him/her.
  • Argument: The recommender should highlight the student's skills, character traits, and achievements with respect to the program/job they are applying to. Anecdotes and examples are used in this section to provide evidence for the applicant’s competence.
  • Closing: The recommender should place a final statement that describes the student’s performance in comparison with their colleagues. For example: “John Doe ranks among the top 10% of students in his class”. The recommender should also list their name, contact details, and signature for authenticity.

How to request a recommendation letter?

Plan ahead

The timing at which you approach a potential recommender will determine the response and the quality of the letter you will receive.

Provide them with ample time in advance, typically a few weeks, as well as adequate details for them to be able to compile a proper recommendation.

Be tactful

Make sure to be mindful and tactful when approaching a potential recommender and avoid sounding hasty or demanding. You should typically approach your teachers prior to your graduation and request a generic letter that can be sent to various recipients.

What should you include in your email request?

1. A brief introduction

A formal email addressed to your teacher with the subject line in this format: "Your full name - Recommendation Request".

You can start the email by mentioning the last class you had with that teacher (For example: “In the fall of 2020, I enrolled in your marketing class which was more than enjoyable”). Then, you can move on to elaborate your need for an academic recommendation letter to complete a pending university/job application. It is important to mention the deadline to provide the letter.

2. Attach all relevant documents

For your professor to have adequate information and compile a proper letter, you can attach the following to your email:

  • Summary document: Including a detailed list of all courses you successfully passed with that teacher, projects you have completed as well as the grades you have received for each and the collective grade for each course.
  • Curriculum Vitae (CV): Including academic history, Grade Point Average (GPA), extracurricular/ volunteer activities, work experience, personal skills, professional skills, and awards or achievements.
  • Recommendation letter format: As provided by the university or potential employer.
  • Copy of cover letter/admission essay

3. Request a meeting (if possible)

A meeting with your professor will be helpful to discuss your pending applications and what skills and attributes you need to highlight in your letter. It will help your professor phrase the letter to better suit what your evaluators are looking for.

Follow up and give appreciation

Follow up with your professor on the status of your letter; however, you should avoid rushing or nagging. You should expect to receive the letter in a sealed envelope with the professor’s signature. Once you have received the letter you should send a note of thanks in recognition for the time and attention they offered.

It is also recommended to update your professor on the final outcomes of your application.

In closing

Writing your next recommendation letter is a matter of timeliness, selectivity, and tact. Providing your professor with proper notice and rudimentary details will increase your chances of receiving a great letter of recommendation.

Frequently Asked Questions about letters of recommendation

✉️ What should an academic letter of recommendation include?

A typical recommendation letter consists of an introduction section describing the relationship between the recommender and student followed by examples and anecdotes describing the skills, character, and knowledge of the applicant. The last section should have the professor’s full name, contact details, and signature.

📎 Who can be an academic recommender?

A previous/current high school teacher or college professor is usually a good candidate. Guidance counselors and academic supervisors may also provide academic letters of recommendation.

📝 How long should an academic recommendation letter be?

A typical letter would be one to two pages long.

⏳ Is two weeks enough time to ask for a letter of recommendation?

It is optimal to give your teacher/professor at least a few weeks' notice to prepare a recommendation letter.

📌 How do I approach a teacher/professor for a letter?

You should start by sending an email with a brief introduction, include all relevant documents (CV, cover letter, etc.), and request a meeting if possible.


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