• Stephanie J. Silverman

How to Ask a Professor for a Reference Letter

Students have recently told me that 'professionals' are charging money for advice on how to ask a professor for a letter of reference. This hyping-up of a simple email is both silly and highway robbery!

If you are prepared and polite, there is no reason to stress this aspect of the application process.

Herewith are helpful DO's and DON'Ts for how best to approach a prof for a reference letter

DO map out your deadlines ahead of time

Make a chart that has your target-university's name/program + the means to apply (the portal may be a website or an email address or both) + contact for admissions officer ++ deadlines. Bonus don't: Don't over-complicate this chart!

DO think about which profs you want to approach

Was there someone you connected with in class or office hours or over email?

Did their work or approach influence your decision to go to law / postgraduate school?

Did you achieve a good grade?

Will this prof be a recognized name in your field? Will they have time to write letters? (This nod to adjunct lecturers is meant to acknowledge that (a) they are often asked to juggle the needs of many students at once; and (b) they do not get paid in the summer or over holidays)

DO email your prof in advance, with a month-ish being a good lead time

Profs are balancing many commitments, some of which you may know about - teaching, other classes, research projects - but many of which are kept hidden behind a curtain of 'personal' life. COVID19 has knocked this so-called work-life balance totally off-kilter for everyone.

You should give advance but not too much warning, as you don't want to fall off the radar. Provide them with a clear expectation of how many letters; whether they can be duplicated; and whether they have to be specially formatted (for government grants, etc).

Note that there is an economy of scale: once the prof authors the first letter, it is much less work to keep sending out variations of it.

DO compile your supporting materials as soon as possible

You will be best placed to send your prof a package of materials when approaching them.

With my own students, I asked for

- a recent CV

- a personal letter (knowing why the student wants to keep studying really helps a prof to craft a better and more convincing letter)

- a copy of a recent assignment

DO NOT substitute LinkedIn for a CV

Believe it or not, this has happened to some colleagues of mine! If the prof is asking for a letter and CV, send them both!

DO be polite but DO NOT grovel

Writing reference letters is part of the job for any prof who takes their commitments to students seriously. You are not begging for a favour but requesting a letter as standard procedure. The procedure may be onerous and out-dated, but that is a conversation for another day.

Be sure to ask if the prof is prepared or willing to write a 'strong letter of reference' for you.

DO NOT be upset if your first-choice prof declines

Be gracious and understanding if the prof declines to write letters this round: this is not a rejection or repudiation of you; this is simply a confluence of time, resources, commitments, and other factors exogenous to you and your performance in their class.

Take some time and then write a polite acknowledgement back. You never know what interactions you will have in the future. It is best to leave this exchange on a courteous, collegial, and professional note.


I cannot stress this enough! Would you be surprised to learn that it's happened to me and my colleagues? This is a poor foundation to lay when requesting reference letters.

DO follow up

Again, profs are busy! It is your responsibility to be as facilitative as possible.

So think about:

Re-emailing the prof if you do not hear back after one week

Reminding the prof one week before the deadline, and/or checking in the afternoon before the deadline

Confirming that the tech and everything else went smoothly one day after the deadline

Do NOT email profs on the weekend if it can be avoided!

DO thank the prof

Profs are like other people: they like their hard work to be acknowledged. I am not suggesting that you spend money on chocolates or a bouquet of roses; but a kind note, especially once you receive an admissions offer, always brightens profs' days.