How to ask your professor for a reference letter


At the end of undergrad I took a year off to explore the world (and pay back some OSAP).

After 12 months of aimless drifting and a lot of fun, I decided to get my act in gear and go back to school.

But grad school was not something I had previously considered and, unfortunately, I had not made a concerted effort to stay in contact with my professors.

I was terrified they wouldn’t remember my name or my contributions to class.

However, once I got in touch with them, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how wrong I was.

Here is some first-hand advice for those of you who think you may want to apply to grad school or for a job, and you require references from a professor.

Talk to them in person

If possible, go see them instead of sending an email. This was the scariest part for me, but professors are bombarded with dozens of emails on a daily basis from their current students and colleagues, and they may not get to yours right away, or at all.

Furthermore, they are more likely to recognize you by your face and not your name. It also shows you are really serious about wanting the reference because you made the effort to come see them.

Go in with a purpose

I found that the more information I gave my professors about the opportunity I was seeking, the better and more detailed their letters were.

For grad school applications, tell them which program you’re applying for and supply any other relevant information. For job applications, provide the professor with the job description and a copy of your resumĂ©.

Show your work (even if your undergrad didn’t involve math)

If you can, find and bring either an original marked-up and graded copy of an assignment you completed for the professor, or print a file that has been stored on your hard drive or USB key since before graduation.

Professors meet hundreds of new students every year and may need a reminder of how amazing you were as a student.

Tell them why

If applying to grad school, bring your statement of intent, especially if you have a similar interest to your prof.

If applying to a job, tell them why you are excited about the opportunity and help them want to be part of it.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know

Try not to be shy about asking and remember that profs are there to help you. It is an unwritten rule that they write letters of reference for students. There is definitely no harm in asking! The worst that can happen is that they’ll say, “No.”

Say thank you and keep the prof updated on your progress

No matter what happens, whether you’re admitted or rejected, hired or not, call, email or write your prof to say thanks. And if they showed any interest in continuing to know how you’re doing personally or professionally, take the opportunity to do so once in a while.