Dos and Don’ts of How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation Skip to main content
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Dos and Don’ts of How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

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Dos and Donts of How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation “Hey! Can you talk about how awesome I am? And can I, like, get that by, like, Monday? kthxbye!” Big don’t when requesting a letter of recommendation from a professor or manager. Do you have a job interview coming up, or are you applying to grad school or a post-doc position? Constitutional law professor Jay Wexler has some tips on how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

Wexler, who teaches at Boston University School of Law, has a lot of extra letters and abbreviations after his name. That means he’s had to make many a letter of recommendation request and, as an advisor and mentor, written more than a few, too (more than 100, he says).

So, what can you expect when you ask for a letter of recommendation from a teacher or boss?

Your letter of recommendation will likely be a one-to-two page letter that lays out how you know each other and — getting back to that “how awesome you are” thing — drills down your performance, abilities, and why you’ll excel in the job or program you’re applying for.

“If the student has written a paper for me, for example, I like to describe what it was about and what the strong points of the paper was,” says Wexler. “If the student took an exam in my course, I try to look back at my records and indicate, for instance, what kind of question the student did particularly well on and why.”

Wexler will also sprinkle in other germane soft skills a future employer or selection committee might appreciate knowing – personality traits, character, and even if the student has a good sense of humor. “I try to give the reader the sense that I know the student and really think the student is going to be terrific in the job.”

After graduating from Stanford Law School, Wexler clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So, did he ask the notorious RBG for a letter of recommendation? Did he give her more than the weekend? Did he sign off his letter of recommendation request “kthxbye”?

No, to all of the above. But he did ask her for a blurb for his novel about a Supreme Court justice having a mid-life crisis.

“She declined on the grounds that sitting judges aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing,” he says. “Probably she was happy she could rely on that explanation rather than having to tell me that she’d rather jump into a pit full of tarantulas than read a book about a Supreme Court justice having a mid-life crisis.”

So what other advice does Wexler have on how to ask for a letter of recommendation? Nothing involves tarantulas, we promise.

✓ DO ask someone who knows you and your work well.

Pop quiz: should you ask the professor of that cakewalk 500-student auditorium class that you got an A in, or the teacher of smaller class that you got a hmmm B in? Pencils down. The answer is B, says Wexler. “A professor who taught you in a seminar, for example, and who has read a paper that you’ve read, would be better than a professor who you took in a large lecture class and therefore barely knows you. The potential employer can look at your transcript and see that you got an A in the big class, but the letter is supposed to provide information beyond what the employer can learn from the transcript.”

✓ DO give your professor time to turn around your letter of recommendation.

How long is a good lead time when asking for a letter of recommendation? Three weeks before your deadline, says Wexler. “More than that and the professor might put it out of their mind and then forget about it. Two weeks or less is cutting it too close,” he continues. “But if the opportunity comes up and the application is due in two weeks, you shouldn’t avoid asking for the letter. Just make it clear that you know you’re cutting it close and that you’ll understand if the professor can’t write the letter in time.”

X DON’T wait to follow up.

Yes, you’re asking for a favor, but advisors know this is part of the job. If your professor hasn’t responded to your initial request within a week of your request, it’s totally okay to email them again. Everyone’s inbox succumbs to the “oops missed that” glaze over. Your lit prof said they would but you haven’t heard back by your deadline? “Send a follow up email to inquire, but be polite about it,” says Wexler.

✓ DO give the basic details – and the specific ones, too.

The more information, the better, says Wexler. They’ll need the nuts and bolts: the position, the responsibilities, the deadline, recipient (a generic To Whom It May Concern is okay if you’re unsure), and where to send it. “Make it clear what the opportunity is. If there’s a link to the program or job you’re applying for, provide that when you ask for the letter. The easier you can make it for the letter-writer the better the letter will probably end up.”

✓ DO include your resume, writing samples, or other pertinent nonesuches.

Does this future job require you to be a good writer? Have a web portfolio? Other “look at how I awesome I am” work? Include them when requesting a letter of recommendation. “If a student is applying for a job for which being a good writer is a helpful qualification, and I haven’t read a paper that the student has written, I might ask if the student has a paper they’ve written for a different class that they can send me,” says Wexler. Also attach your resume or CV to give them the whole picture – they might not know all the courses you took, internships you had, or awards you won.

X DON’T shy away from asking for a letter of recommendation if you aren’t a superstar.

Maybe you get average grades, but you’re a good project manager with a personality that shines. Maybe you’re a lab ninja, but not so good with the writing and words and stuff. “Grades are not everything, and professors know that,” says Wexler of how to ask for a letter of recommendation when you aren't 4.0 material. “It’s okay to let the professor know that you realize your grades, or whatever it is, aren’t great, but that you still think you’ll be an excellent fit for the job or internship.” Then give them what they need to know – the why behind your being an excellent fit. “Maybe you’ve had experience in the area before, or otherwise demonstrated some passion for it. If the professor thinks that they can’t write you an excellent letter, they’ll tell you. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking.”

Connect with Jay Wexler on his site, or follow his hilarious Twitter account @scotushumor, where he counts the number of laughs noted in Supreme Court argument transcripts.


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