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How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

The Department’s faculty strives to support the endeavors of all History students. During your time at the university the chances are high that you will need to ask one of them for a letter of recommendation to support an application. Because you will be competing with other students spread across the university, the country or in some cases the globe, you want to get the best letter you can. Here are some ways to help you do just that—a guide prepared by Carolan Ownby of the University of Utah’s LEAP Program.

Note that FERPA rules require that the professors receive a signed release from students to report their grades or any educational information linked to them in letters of reference. 

The five guidelines for requesting a letter of recommendation are as follows: First, ask someone whom 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 his 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.

Second, 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.

 Third, 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.

 Fourth, provide the professor with complete, written information about yourself and the scholarship for which you are applying. Information about yourself would include your name, contact information, and at least a brief summary of your activities in areas 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 to provide a context. Many professors like to see a sample of your writing, in order to be reminded of how you write and think. Information about the scholarship would include things such as criteria, the focus of the scholarship [service, academic, etc.], the name of the person or group to whom the letter should be addressed, and the deadline. 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.

Fifth, plan on visiting 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. 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.


Last Updated: 7/13/19