Asking for Recommendation Letters (Hidden Curriculum #2)

Last month I began a series on “the hidden curriculum.” The hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. This second installment features tips on how to ask for recommendation letters (or references), which can form part of all kinds of applications!

Asking for recommendation letters can be scary but if you plan ahead, the process is smoother!

Before You Ask: The Basics

Before you start sending emails asking for recommendation letters, there are two things that you should know: the number of recommendations you will need and the deadline for the application. 

Every application is different, even for the same sort of thing (like funding opportunities). A good rule of thumb is to have at least three people that know you well enough to write for you. They should ideally be able to speak to different aspects of your professional career. These include fieldwork and/or research experience, teaching, work ethic, and overall character.

A note on recommendations vs references: 

Sometimes you are asked to provide the names of people as references, rather than letter writers. You might want to just enter the names, but it’s important to still ask them to be references, should the time come when they’re contacted about your application.

Usually application materials and letters of recommendation are submitted by the same day. Knowing the application deadline helps you determine when to ask for a recommendation letter. 

If you’ve drafted some of your application materials (such as your project proposal), you should email potential recommenders at least a month before the deadline. If you haven’t started on your application materials, six to eight weeks before the deadline is probably a better time frame.

How to Ask for Recommendation Letters

I’ve never emailed a professor before – help!

I know that it’s scary to cold email someone, no matter your relationship with them. This is especially true if you’re asking them to do something for you. This can be the case even once you know that faculty members are usually more than happy to write recommendations for you.

But it’s also important to recognize that faculty members have busy schedules. Their lives don’t revolve around your application deadline. It’s important to give them as much advance notice as possible when asking them to write for you.

It may seem onerous to have to think about your applications so early, but consider it a courtesy to your recommenders.

But how do I actually write the email?

There has been a lot of discussion about email etiquette on social media these past few weeks, from how to address a professor to how to sign off an email.

There also exist numerous guides and templates all over the internet. 

You’re welcome to take my recommendations below with a grain of salt, but this is generally how I’ve approached asking for letters of recommendation in the past. 

These templates are for an initial email where you ask if they’ll write for you. If you have application materials ready to share, attach them to this email. If not, indicate that you will share them soon and follow up.

The amount of time it takes to draft these materials is different for everyone, but if you want feedback, send them sooner rather than later.

Email Template

Dear [Prof./Dr.] [Last Name],


I am planning to apply for [opportunity], and I was wondering if you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me. [Description of opportunity, including why you are interested in applying for it and the deadline]. 

If it would be helpful, I’m happy to set up a meeting to talk with you more about my plans, and will of course share my application materials with you [in the next few days/weeks].

Please let me know if you have any further questions or concerns.


[Your Name]

They’ve Said Yes – Now What?

Share your application materials with them. Always share your application materials with your recommenders. At minimum you should include an updated CV or resume and your proposal. If your application requires an itinerary, budget, or other statements, include these as well. This will allow them to speak to your experiences and plans more specifically.

Schedule a meeting. This is optional, but is useful for someone who doesn’t know you well enough to write for you yet. A meeting may give them a better sense of your interests, goals, and future plans.

Send a follow-up email. Giving recommenders a lot of lead time makes it’s easy to forget they agreed to write for you. Some application platforms will alert you whenever a recommendation letter is submitted. However, this isn’t always the case. Most people appreciate a gentle reminder of the deadline one or two weeks before the application is due.

Keep your recommenders in the loop. Once the application is submitted, we tend to push it to the back of our minds and get on with our lives. But it’s important not only to thank your recommenders for their time, but also to let them know how things turn out. 

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