Part of an instructor’s job is to write letters of recommendation for students, so you should not feel awkward about asking. However, before you ask, you should keep some things in mind.
Whom do you ask for a letter of recommendation?
Are you applying for a summer job? Consider asking an instructor whose class you did well in and who knows you and your work. Did you slack off in class, turn in assignments late, and spend class time texting? Don’t ask the instructor to recommend you because, in good conscious, they can’t, and it will be awkward for both of you when they say so. Or they may write a letter for you, but it won’t be a good one–it will be so generic and vague that the recipient will know automatically that the writer isn’t really recommending you.
Are you applying to an internship? Again, ask an instructor who knows you and your work. You should have performed well in their course or at least put in visible effort. It will help if the instructor is in the field you are applying to. So, if you want a lab internship, ask your bio professor for a letter, not your professor of art history.
Are you applying to grad school? You’ll need a letter from a professor in the field you’re applying for, preferably a professor whose class you did well in and who knows you and your work. It helps if you did upper-level course work with them and not just English 101. In most cases you should also ask somehow who actually holds the title of professor, not an instructor without a PhD. And certainly don’t ask your TA.
Should you ask for a letter of recommendation?
Only ask someone for a letter if you did well in their course and put in visible effort. If you consistently arrived late or left class early, turned in assignments late, and spent class time talking with your friends or texting, you should not ask for a letter from the instructor of this course. If they are writing a letter so you can get a summer camp job, your grade in their course does not matter. They can only speak to your work ethic. If you did not seem to have much, they can’t recommend you. They’ll worry about hurting other students if it becomes known that they have recommended unqualified individuals in the past.
How to ask for a Letter of Recommendation
- Email your professor using proper email etiquette. Explain politely that you are asking if they can write a letter for recommendation for you and include the nature or name of the internship and perhaps a brief description of what it is.
- If your professor agrees to write the letter, thank them and send them any relevant information such as the date the letter is due, how the recipient wants the letter submitted, etc. You may also want to send your cover letter, letter of intent, resume, or other relevant documents so the writer can refer to them while writing their own letter. If in doubt, ask the professor what additional documents they would like from you.
- If the recipient of the letter requires a hard copy, you should provide the letter writer an addressed and stamped envelope. Don’t make them pay to mail your letter.
- Make sure you give the letter writer enough time to write the letter. Different professors have different ideas of how much time is enough. When applying to grad school, you should ask a couple months in advance. If you’re applying to a job or an internship, you should give the professor a few weeks. Use your judgment based on your knowledge of the professor and keep in mind that professors tend to be very busy at certain times of the year, like during finals week. If they’re grading dozens of essays, they can’t write you a letter in three days.
After the Letter is Submitted
Thank your letter writers! You can send them an email if you must, but I recommend that you send them an actual thank-you card in the mail. They spent a lot of time and effort to try to help you succeed. Surely you can mail them a card in return. They’ll appreciate it and this can only help you if you need to ask them for another letter one day.
I have known some individuals to bring their letter writers gifts. I don’t think most professors expect this and some of them might be a little embarrassed by it. If you have had a great relationship with a professor and consider them your mentor, a gift might be appropriate. Use your judgment and your knowledge of the individual to decide if you think you should give a gift and what it might be. For example, they might collect cute Harry Potter figures for their office or like a box of biscotti. Your gift need not be extravagant, only thoughtful. But again, a gift is not required, only a thank-you note.