Requesting a Recommendation Letter

By Daziyah Sullivan: You know who you want to request a letter of rec from, but it’s the asking that’s the stressor now. Have no fear, that’s what this blog is about!


Take a moment to answer this question: What is the most influential part of your fellowship/graduate school application?

I’ll give you some time to come up with an answer.




Ready? Great!

There are a lot of different answers to this question, likely including (but not limited to!)

  • GPA/Skills
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Leadership Roles
  • Research Experience

What students often do not mention, but professors mention a lot is: Recommendation Letters

Like the saying goes: “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

So, now that I’ve got your anxiety up over a detail you may not have realized mattered so much… I’ll give you a couple of tips on requesting a recommendation letter.

Note: This blog is specifically about requesting a recommendation letter, not who to request it from or any of those other tidbits. Emily has already covered that topic inside of her wonderful blog, along with some tips on thanking your recommender.

Back to the blog!

I asked my recommenders about writing a letter of rec for me as soon as I found an application of interest, and typically at least a month in advance. When possible, I asked them in person and then followed up with an email. It’s post-pandemic time, so it is definitely fine if you can only ask via email, though a verbal heads-up is appreciated. 

Inside of that verbal exchange, it was really informal:

“Hello, so and so, how have you been?”

*Their response*

“That’s interesting/great/unfortunate/cool. I’m looking to apply for ____ that has a deadline of ____ and would love it if you could write a recommendation letter for me.”

*Their response*

“Thank you! I’ll follow up with an email with all of the details soon.”

It’s important to note, all of the people I requested a recommendation letter from said yes.

  • In the case of yes, just go ahead and send them the formal email with the deets!
  • If they say no, that’s okay! On to the next one.
  • If they say yes, but with conditions (as one of mine did), be sure to fulfill those conditions. One of my recommenders wanted my Statement of Purpose and résumé attached to the email - so I made sure I had those added!

Now, the email was pretty formal. Here is an example format:

Hello ____, 

Hope you are doing well!

I am emailing to request a recommendation letter from you on my behalf for a (fellowship/graduate school) application. I plan to apply for ___ (references due by ___ on _____). I would appreciate your recommendation based upon our interactions *insert how they know you.* Below you will find information on what recommendation letters should include for the application. I have bolded points I believe you will be able to speak to well.

*The goodies on information needed for letter of rec*

*Blurb on where you are currently in life (are you at a job, still at that same place you met the recommender, what does your position look like and what are you more focused on).* Attached you will find additional information.

That format feels a tad intense, but it’s very helpful for your recommenders!

The highlights of what *I believe* should be included in this email (remember, this is one person’s opinion!) are as follows:

Summaries of Your Greatness: 

  • Your résumé or curriculum vitae
  • Your personal statement
  • Adjust your email signature (to show your relation to them AND current position AND noticeable accomplishments)

Why They Would Care:

  • How do they know you?
  • Where are you now?
  • Be gracious (Would you want to do something for someone emailing you out of the blue with entitlement written all over their email? I wouldn’t.)

What Is Expected of Them:

  • What are the deadline(s) - remember, you can ask for multiple recommendations at the same time. There were a couple of professors who wrote for each of my numerous applications
  • What is expected inside the recommendation letter? You can find this on the application, or from blogs of people who have also submitted an application. Highlight the key points the recommender can speak to!

Making the process as easy as possible for your recommenders ensures that they’ll be able to write to your strengths to the best of their ability, which will give your application a boost - at least in the academic world.

I wish you the best of luck with your requests for recommendation letters.