Seeking Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation

If  the opportunity you have chosen to apply for asks for references or letters of recommendation, you must ask for these as soon as you know you are applying for something. Pay attention to the holidays, semester schedules, sabbaticals etc.. Many people travel and do not check their emails. It is best to find your recommenders now to give them time to write letters for you. Please note the difference between a asking someone to serve as a reference (name, and contact information only), and a letter of recommendation (the person writes a letter in support of your application). These are very different asks.

*Whether or not your application requires a reference or letter of recommendation, please email me your request for a reference (either letter or contact information). Whether or not you send these notes, I want to see what you write or have written so we can polish these requests and you can save them for future use.

When applying for graduate programs, post bacc programs, residencies, jobs and grants, you may be asked for letters of recommendation, or a list of references. In recent years, many institutions have moved away from asking for physical letters and into asking for a list of references, preferring a phone call over reading letters.  These are things to keep in mind:

Whether asking for a letter of recommendation or for a reference, it is important not to assume that your reference is willing to do either, they are not required to. If they decline to write a letter, this does not necessarily mean that they do not want recommend you. They have may have already committed to other letters or do not have time. It is important to specify what you are asking for. They may also think that they are not the best person to write this letter for you. Ultimately, your mentors have your best interests at heart. Do not take it personally if they decline, but rather listen carefully to their reasons. You want to be sure you ask the right people based upon what you are applying for. For example, you do not want to ask a former employer to be a reference for you if you are applying for graduate school. Rather, you want to ask your closest professors, the ones that know you, your work and your working habits best.

Some advice: I strongly suggest that you do not ask adjunct professors to write you letters- particularly when you have plenty of full time professors at your disposal. There are several reasons for this. First, an adjunct professor is a temporary position, and therefore have not gone through the same rigorous vetting process the rest of the faculty have. They do not have the credibility that full time professors have. Academia is small and many people outside the school know who is on staff and who is on the faculty. A letter from an adjunct does not carry the weight of a letter from a full time professor. Adjuncts are typically young in their careers and are therefore less known. Second, adjuncts are not paid very much. While you may have a close relationship with them, they are paid so little that to ask them to spend their valuable time outside class to write a letter for you is a little disrespectful of their time. full time faculty on the other hand, are compensated for time outside class and it is expected that they develop mentoring relationships outside the classroom. It’s a part of their job.

Letters of Recommendation: While it is OK to have a generalized letter written for you, it is far better to ask your reference to write specific letters for each application. There are several reasons for this. First, if your reference is aware of the specific opportunity for which you are applying, the letter will address the particular circumstances.

It is often the case in that institutions will ask recommenders send letters separately from your application.  If the application calls or letters to be included in your package of information, be sure that your reference letter is signed. For digital applications, have your reference sign and save the document as a PDF, which is less likely to be forged. If  asking for a physical letter, send your reference a pre addressed, stamped envelope, sealed and signed across the seal.

List of references: Once you have asked one time, do not assume that the same people will be willing to continue to be on your list of references. Best practice is to let your recommenders know when you apply for anything so that they are prepared to speak on your behalf. It is a good idea to have at least three people, though four is better with whom you have good relationships, willing to be listed on your list of references. Consider carefully who you will ask. Think about if they have the information needed to recommend you or not. Do not ask family members or friends unless that have specific experience that would benefit your application. It is important to be strategic about who you ask. If you are applying for a job, ask a former employer or mentor. If you are applying for graduate school, post bac, residencies or internships, ask those professors with whom you have worked closely; those that can vouch for how hard you work.

*Ask your reference the best number and address where they can be reached. Some people will supply you with a personal address email, home or cell phone number, while others prefer their business contact. Be careful to respect their wishes.

It is best to ask in person, though it is ok to send an email to your recommender asking if they would be willing to write you a letter. If they are, you must include this information:

  • a description of what you are applying for
  • when the deadline is
  • what the address is that the letter should be sent
  • the name and phone number of the person conducting the search
  • brief statement of your interest in this position

Give the recommender at least THREE WEEKS notice. After two weeks, it is okay to send a very brief reminder. Remember to send a thank you letter to your recommender after the deadline, and let the recommender know if you got the position. They are on your team,  have made an effort for you and acknowledging this makes them more likely to do this for you again in the future.


There are a large number of templates and suggestions out there. I googled “seeking letter of recommendation” and found a huge amount of really helpful information. Here are two:


University of Maine


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