How to Ask for a Letter of Reference
A guide prepared by Carolan Ownby of the University of Utah’s LEAP Program
Note: FERPA rules require that professors receive a signed release from students to report their grades or any educational information linked to them in letters of reference.
1. Ask someone you know and who knows you
Not every instructor can write about you. Don’t ask an instructor to write a letter if you've been disruptive in class. At the beginning of semesters, try to visit all of your professors during office hours for a private visit so that they will begin to know who you are.
2. Ask early
If at all possible, allow two weeks before the letter is due. Everyone understands that emergencies happen, and two weeks is not always possible. However, it is always best. A hurried letter is not likely to be as thoughtful or enthusiastic as is a considered one.
3. Be prepared for the professor to say "no" to your request
This is not the likely scenario, but there are reasons why you might get the "no." The professor may be too busy to give you adequate time. Perhaps she remembers you as the person who was always late, and feels that you could get a stronger letter elsewhere.
4. Provide the professor with complete, written information about yourself and the scholarship
Information about yourself
- contact information
- brief summary of your activities such as academics, service, and campus involvement
- If you haven’t seen the professor for a year, bring her up to date on what you have done.
- Offer to provide an academic transcript
- Many professors like to see a sample of your writing, to be reminded of how you write and think.
Information to include about the scholarship
- the focus of the scholarship (service, academic, etc.)
- the name of the person or group to whom the letter should be addressed
Professors need this information because they take the time to shape the letters for the particular audience. A letter that might work in one context will not be strong in another, and letters addressed "to whom it may concern" are seldom effective.
5. Visit the professor in person to make your request
You're asking for a favor from the professor, not ordering pizza. This brief interview helps the professor form a stronger idea of who you are and what the letter should emphasize. If the form gives you the option, it’s better to waive your right to see the letter. The scholarship committee assumes that this will encourage a more candid letter from the professor, and such a letter will carry more weight.
6. After the process is over, send a thank-you note to the professor
This acknowledges the time the professor spent (thirty minutes to an hour). It also paves the way for you should you need to ask for another letter a year later. Let the professor know the result of your application. This can be done informally, through a phone call or email, but you have now piqued the professor's interest, so you don't just want to disappear.