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How to ask a Professor for Recommendations?

Recommendations add credibility to applications, whether academic or non-academic. Much like reviews help savvy shoppers to fill up their shopping carts with well liked items, Universities and recruiters use recommendations as a commentary on your character, intelligence, personality, and dedication, before deciding on whether to move your application to the to be called or to be shred piles.

For academic applications, in particular Masters (MS) and Doctoral programs, recommendations are usually targeted from your college professors. In contrast, MBA admission officers expect recommendations from managers, rather than professors. If you are applying to MBA programs, read this article – How to choose your MBA recommenders.

With most of the masters degree application material in your control (SoP, forms, essays and so on), letters of recommendations, or LoRs (not to be mistaken for Lord of the Rings), are the only bit which are beyond your control.

The leash, in this case, is in the hands of the Professors. It may be intimidating to walk to into his office, requesting a grown-up Report Card. An overall nerve wracking experience, not knowing whether your request will be welcomed or whether you will be made to sit through a lecture specifying a list of reasons why you have never been his star student. That is exactly why it is important to give some thought into who to entrust this upon.

This article will lay out the guidelines to mind while choosing your referee, or recommender, and will then move on to how to approach the referee so as to get a solid letter of endorsement.

Who should you choose for the task of writing your recommendation letter?

Let us be clear upfront – Not your mother. Yes she knows you the best and is guaranteed to write a raving review about the time you read a story to your baby sister to sleep, but she is not the objective evaluator universities want. So here are some things to sniff out from the faculty body in your college.

Rules of Engagement

Your professor should be able to pick you out from a class full of student faces. You need to be an engaging participant, asking questions, meeting in his office hours. A persistent act of engagement indicates an eagerness to learn, a passion to get involved and of course the ability to interact. Also it makes it easier for the referee to write an honest, solid and convincing report on your behalf.

Numbers matter, but not as much as you think

You may not be the course acer. You may not even be in the top percentile in your class. However, if you have managed to exhibit a keen interest, you can be assured that your professor will know you by your first name. At least that’s what the horses are saying!

According to a Professor at Brandeis University, recommendations are given selectively. They are given to the most deserving candidate who has regularly displayed an active learning interest. Why give them out en masse and cause recommendation inflation?

So choose a professor who you know well, not simply the one whose course you aced, while sitting at the back bench, doodling away I heart Wolverine!

Does he have the referral badge?

Often it helps to research the professor for his accomplishments. For one thing, it tells you what his standing is likely to be in the academic world. And secondly, it tells you which school he has been to. If you are lucky, it would be one of those that you are applying to. Now what admissions committee can walk past such information without their eyes getting drawn to the familiar name of the recommending professor’s alma mater?

How to ask a Professor for Recommendations?

After having zeroed in on who to ask from, you have to, well, ask. This requires a bit of finesse as after all you will be asking them to take some time out for you, from their otherwise tight schedule. Here are some things you should try.

  • First, send him an email or simply knock on his door, during his office hours, and let your intention be known. If you have been smart, you have kept in touch with him, over emails or simply a smiling-nod in the hallways, for you to be able to strike up a conversation without any introductions.

    If not, try this sample email template to ask a professor for a recommendation.

    Start with a clear objective and then move on to a memory jogger, I was in ABC101 who had done a project on XYZ that you had helped me with. Once sufficiently confident that he does remember you, hopefully not for the wrong reasons, move on to the details.
    – Mention the schools, and degree, you will be applying to.

    – The details of whether it needs to be a paper recommendation or a digital one. If digital, provide all the links and login details.

    – Provide him your transcripts, resume, your Statement of Purpose. Also make sure you ask what all documents would he need, whether in print or by email. Make a neat list of items and file them for him. Make his life easy.

    – Give him the details of the order of university deadlines. That way, he will know which ones to tackle first.

    – And if you can meet with him, do so. It helps Professors to put a face to the name and also provides them an opportunity to ask you your motivation behind pursuing the degree, what makes you stand apart from the rest of the crowd, and other questions that can ultimately make his recommendation compelling.

  • When you do meet with him, be professional and don’t show up half an hour late or minus the paperwork. Have your transcripts, SoP, Resume, etc filed and ready for his perusal, as mentioned before.

    Also important are stamped envelopes with University addresses neatly written. Be polite. Remember he symbolically owns a straw doll with your name on it. Don’t give him a reason to push pins in it.

  • Keep timeline in mind. Make sure you give your recommending Professor enough time to prepare the letter. A good plan would give him at least 2 months to ponder. Rushing at the very end will make for a very bad plan and most Professors will not entertain being pushed to a corner.
  • Drop in once, or email, somewhere two weeks before the deadline for a gentle reminder. Don’t overdo it though. Your trust in them should be a given, having handed them the responsibility of taking your application to the next level.
  • If there is no response, just write/meet him a day before the deadline. And once it is sent, send him a thank you note or drop in to express your gratitude.
Kristina Wright is the Assistant Director, Engineering Career Services, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. MBA Crystal Ball requested Kristina to share some tips on how to manage professor recommendations.

“Typically, I would not recommend that a student make a recommendation request by email,” she says. “If a student would like to have a strong recommendation letter, I advise them to email the professor to arrange a time to meet with them face-to-face to discuss their career plans and to request a letter of recommendation. This conversation allows the student to explain their goals and intentions, as well as provide a refresher to the faculty member as to who the student is.”

Kristina highlights the fact that “Many faculty work with a large volume of students and may not remember names as easily as faces! In the email that the student sends to arrange this meeting, he or she might include a brief introductory note (perhaps, how they are acquainted with the faculty member) and make the request for a meeting to discuss the recommendation letter.”

“When meeting in person with the faculty member the student should provide a current copy of their resume and their personal statement (or other application essays). In addition, the student will want to provide the faculty member with information about the programs that they are applying to, as well as prompts/requirements for the recommendation letter. These resources will allow the faculty member to personalize the recommendation letter to the program.”

When it comes to timing, Kristina suggests “Early is always better! I recommend contacting a professor a minimum of 3-4 weeks before the deadline. This allows the professor ample time to review the student’s credentials, craft the letter and make revisions and customizations for individual programs.”

The general rules of approaching a professor for recommendation are not vastly different from what courtesy demands from any professional association. You want the relation to continue.

Update him if you choose to discard a certain application, so that he doesn’t spend time working on a moot letter, and definitely let him know when your acceptance arrives.

After all, he did play a supporting role!
Read these related posts:
Don’t neglect your MBA Letters of Recommendations
Common mistakes in MBA LoRs

Source: 1, 2

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6 thoughts on “How to ask a Professor for Recommendations?”

  1. Hey,

    A Qualified Chartered Accountant working with a Big 4 for the past one and a half year. Since inception was a bit inclined towards MBA and doing it from a good university.
    Planning to start studying for GMAT for the current year (Year ending 2017)
    I was interested in maybe having your opinion on pursuing MBA and whether the same will add advantage for me or in the long run to climb up the ladder in corporate structure.

    Since, dont have a strong background or knowledge on how to start prep for GMAT, wanted some assistance from you or your views on the same

    Hoping a reply from your end
    Thanks in advance

  2. Hi I have 9 years of work experience ( HSBC and Adp) as customer analyst but now I am planning for MBA aboard to explore more

    I am really confused which country sud I choose for MBA and I have to keep in mind of my budget ,expenses and also I dnt want to compromise the quality of study .

    Please help me out


  3. Which country has better opportunities for management profile among Germany, France and Netherlands( if there are about same ranking colleges like EBS, IESEG, Nyenrode)??

  4. @Ritesh: Here’s what you can use to start your GMAT prep:

    @Umang: If you aren’t keen on the regular desitnations like USA, Canada etc here are a few other options:

    @Shanu: You’ll find management roles in every country where there’s any form of economic activity. From the list you’ve shared, France has higher ranked bschools (INSEAD, HEC Paris), so it may be easier to reach out to employers.

    @Devina: Check out the Master in Management (MiM) degree:

  5. Hi.
    I am applying for MS in electrical engineering. I have sent out letters to many professors but I have not got reply’s yet. can you suggest some techniques to include which might help me get the reply


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