Robert N. Watson
Distinguished Professor of English, Associate Dean of Humanities,
and Neikirk Chair for Innovative Undergraduate Education
Don’t be afraid to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, whether in office hours or by email. Of course it’s good to be polite, but such letters are a normal part of our job: it’s not as if you are asking the professor to iron your laundry. And don’t feel you should get your professor a gift in return: that can feel like bribery, so we’re much happier with a brief note of thanks when your applications lead to success!
Still, you should try to make the job easier. That means making your request well in advance of any deadlines, and once the professor has agreed to write for you, you should ask what materials it would be helpful for you to provide. Usually that will include a resumé (sometimes called a CV), a sample of your work (a paper or project you did for that professor’s course, for example, or one you’re especially proud of from another course), the “personal statement” you’re planning to use on your application for the graduate school or job or scholarship you’re applying for, possibly a transcript of your grades (can be just a photocopy, you don’t an official one with the school seal for this), sometimes a link or brief paragraph clarifying what you’re applying for (so the letter can be tailored to emphasize your relevant abilities), and a list of the programs and institutions to which you’re applying.
It will also almost always involve a waiver form, whether paper or online, that asks whether you give up your right to see the letter you’re requesting. You do have that right – but most students decide to waive it, because most programs will put less value on a letter the recommender knows the student wants to see, because they assume the recommender will be less honest in expressing any reservations.
Many programs now use an online system for recommendations, but if you have ones that need to go in by mail, it’s best to provide your professor with stamped and addressed envelopes.
Sometimes a professor may suggest that you seek a letter from someone else instead. That may mean the professor is being lazy, but more likely it means the professor isn’t sure s/he knows your work well enough, or admires it enough, to recommend you enthusiastically enough to help you gain your goal. If you really feel this professor is nonetheless your best bet, don’t be afraid to say so. But remember that a bland letter from a famous scholar is likely to be much less helpful for your case than a detailed, admiring letter from a Teaching Assistant who worked with you closely.
Remember that we want to see our students thrive; so if you have done good work for us, we are likely to do the same for you.