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Proper Way to Ask for a Letter of Reference

written by: ccrzadkiewicz•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 7/27/2010

This article addresses the how to ask for a letter of reference properly and is specifically geared toward students who will soon be graduating from college. There is an incorrect way and a proper way to ask for a letter of reference, and asking the proper way will result in a positive response.

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    How to Request a Letter of Reference for a Job Application

    If you will be graduating from college in the foreseeable future, now is the time to begin thinking about locating the ideal job, meaning one where you can utilize the skills and knowledge you’ve worked so hard to acquire over the past several years. However, there is something else you should be considering as well. Since potential employers usually require letters of reference, you should at least begin thinking about which individuals you will ask to provide these letters. Of course, who better to ask than one or more of your previous professors? (After all, they taught you much of what you know, didn’t they?) Before asking for their assistance, though, you should first learn the proper way to ask for a letter of reference.

    What Not to Assume When Asking for a Letter of Reference

    Many students erroneously assume that all professors have incredible memories that allow them to recall each and every, no matter how minute, detail about not only the subject matter they teach but also every student they’ve ever taught. The reality, though, is that although professors seem to have little problem recalling facts about the subject matter they teach, perhaps because they teach it semester after semester and year after year, when it comes to students, that’s another story entirely. Why? It’s because, on average, professors instruct 300 students per year, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to recall much, if anything, about a former student. In fact, the professor whose class you so enjoyed just two semesters ago might not even remember your face, let alone your name. Therefore, when you ask former professors for a letter of reference, state your name and then prompt their memory.

    Information to Include When Asking for a Letter of Reference

    Granted, if you had several classes with the same professors, they will probably recall far more about you than a student they taught only once. Yet, even then, since professors are merely human (contrary to popular belief among students), the proper way to ask for a letter of reference is to begin by providing a few “memory triggers," for example:

    • Your name
    • Course title
    • Course date (year and semester or quarter)
    • Grade earned
    • Anything about you that will trigger a memory: Did you deliver a memorable presentation or speech? Write an especially colorful paper on an unusual topic? Dye your hair purple? Have a Mohawk haircut, a bone through your nose, or a tattoo of a hobbit on your forehead. If so, then mention it, but you also might consider mentioning that you were going through a phase of self-discovery at the time, which has now passed.

    Then, after prodding your professor’s memory, provide the following information that relates to the position for which you are applying:

    • The name of the organization or company to which you are applying
    • The name of the individual to whom the letter should be addressed
    • Your reason for wanting this particular position
    • Your qualifications (skill, knowledge, experience) for the position

    Also, do not forget to provide a stamped, addressed envelope. Do not be so presumptuous as to expect the professor to furnish the envelope and pay the postage.

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    Sample of the Proper Way to Ask for a Letter of Reference

    Although what you say will depend upon your relationship to the individual to whom you are making the request, below is a sample of a letter written by a student to a former professor asking for a letter of reference:

    Date

    Student name and address

    Recipient Name and address

    Dear (Professor's Name):

    My name is Janie Student, and I was in your class, ENG 445: Studies in the American Short Story, in the fall semester of 2009. I don’t know if you remember or not, since you have had so many students, but I was the freckled-face redhead who always lingered after class to “pick" your brain about certain writers, specifically Faulkner, O’Connor, and Oates, who have always been high on my list of favorites. If I never thanked you for taking time to talk with me after class, I would like to do so now, for I am certain that your patience and tutelage contributed to my earning the “A" I received in the class. So, Mr. Educator, thank you.

    I am writing because I will be graduating in the spring, with a major in English and minor in secondary education, and I am going to submit an application for employment to the Madison County School System. I did my student teaching last semester at Coleman High School, which is in the Madison system, and would like to return there if Coleman has any vacancies. On the other hand, I know I would be happy teaching at another school since my goal—and longtime dream—has always been to become a teacher, specifically a high school English teacher, so I could have a positive influence upon young people’s lives, as so many of my own teachers (you included) influenced my life.

    Since positions are usually filled in the late spring, before summer vacation, I thought now would be the time to apply instead of waiting until after I graduate, so I am trying to get all required paperwork submitted to the school system, including four required letters of reference.

    I know you are extremely busy, but I would greatly appreciate your writing a letter of reference on my behalf. I have included a stamped envelope for your convenience, along with the name and title of the person to whom you should address the letter (see insert). If you cannot, however, write the letter on my behalf, I will understand, but please let me know so I can ask someone else, although I would much prefer a letter from you. After all, you were my favorite professor at the University of Missouri, and I mean that sincerely.

    If you have any questions or require additional information, please contact me at the telephone number below. Thank you.

    Respectfully,

    Janie M. Student

    Telephone: 300-222-9999

    In summary, apply these tips on how to ask for a letter of reference properly and people will be far more likely not only to provide a letter but also to say good things about you, and if the people you use as references say good things about you, it will greatly increase your chances of landing the ideal job after graduation.