How To Request An Academic Reference Letter (With Examples)

By Kristin Kizer - Jun. 15, 2021

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An academic reference letter, or also known as an academic recommendation letter, provides details about your academic achievements, your character as a student, and your future career or life goals.

Typically, these letters are written by someone who knows you through a school setting, like a teacher, a guidance counselor, or a school administrator. But they can also be written by coaches or extracurricular club leaders.

While the last two might not be as aware of your academic accomplishments, they generally have an idea of how you’re doing, what classes you’re taking, and they know your character, strengths, and future goals at least as thoroughly as a teacher.

What Is an Academic Reference Letter?

An academic reference letter is a document written by someone you know through academia and can speak to your strengths and help you gain entry into a school or land a job.

Whomever you ask to write your letter is your reference — they’re someone who would refer you to a school or a job. If you’re trying to figure out who to ask to be your reference, remember that their opinion is going to be very important when it comes to you getting into the college of your dreams or getting that new job.

You want to select someone who will speak highly of you and be on your side.

The request letter is the official and formal way of asking for an academic reference letter. You might be thinking this is a silly extra step, especially if you’re asking someone that you know really well and have developed a personal relationship with.

It’s true that the request letter often is just an exercise and not necessary but it’s a great exercise because it’s fantastic practice for your future. And, let’s face it, if you’re asking for an academic reference letter, then you’re looking at your future and you’re planning on doing big things.

You’re going to appreciate this practice later on.

Plus, the way that you present your reference letters is crucial, so requesting them in a specific format is paramount. To give you an idea, most recommendation letters are kept in sealed envelopes with the signature of the writer over the seal. This guarantees that you haven’t tampered with the contents of the letter and that the words within are genuine.

Other options include online portal submissions or direct emails to hiring managers or program directors. Following submission instructions, and passing those instructions onto your recommender, are very important tasks.

Why Do You Need Academic Reference Letters?

Academic letters of recommendation add so much more to the picture of you as a student than just a transcript does. It gives the reader a deeper look at who you are, what you aspire to be, and what you’ve accomplished.

Imagine that you got a B in math and your goal is to become an accountant. That doesn’t look as good on a transcript as an “A” grade would and it might hurt your chances in your future career. Now, if there’s a reason that you got a “B” (maybe you were in a car accident and spent half of the year recovering but still managed to get a B). Your story is suddenly one of triumph and perseverance.

This is just one situation, but it’s a good illustration of why requesting an academic recommendation letter can be so important.

When and Why to Use Academic Reference Letters

Now that you see how having an academic recommendation letter can help bolster your application or add to your transcripts, when would you use it?

You should consider collecting at least one of them if you’re applying to college, going to graduate school, looking to obtain financial aid or a scholarship, or trying to get a job but don’t have much formal working experience.

You may have already realized that using one with your college admissions made sense but when you look at how important it can be to something like being awarded scholarship money or getting financial aid, it becomes even more crucial to ask the right person and to go that extra mile to ask them in the most professional and best way possible.

Who to Ask for Academic Reference Letters

The people you can ask for an academic reference letter include:

  • Former or current teachers/professors

  • Academic advisors

  • School administrators

  • Teachers of extracurricular activities

  • Coaches

More important than the person’s specific relationship to you, however, is how well they know you. The strongest reference letters will be written by individuals who:

  • Know you well (and like you)

  • Can speak to strengths that are relevant to the opportunity you’re applying for

  • Have recently taught you (within 2 years is ideal)

  • Understand your ultimate goals

At the end of the day, it’s better to select a professor whose office hours you regularly showed up for rather than one whose class you aced but never met. A professor who intimately knows your work ethic and performance is always going to be the strongest choice.

How Many Academic References Do I Need?

Between two and five is the norm that academic programs and job postings will require. If the posting asks for a range (e.g., 2-4), always aim for the high end of that range. However, it’s better to have two quality references rather than two good ones and two mediocre or poor ones.

Be sure to confirm whether the posting specifies academic or professional references. Some may stipulate a certain number of each, while schools will lean towards more academic references and most jobs will favor professional references.

If you’re a recent graduate applying for jobs outside of academia and research, hiring managers want to see more professional references than academic ones. Still, you can include one strong academic reference as a way of supporting your professional ones.

How to Ask for an Academic Reference Letter

Email, in person, through snail mail — how do you ask for that letter of recommendation?

We highly encourage you to write out your request and send it as an email.

An email is easy, and it can be less stressful, but talking to your professor or teacher in person can show them your sincerity and earnestness and might work to your benefit. It might also help you prepare for a job interview. Snail mail isn’t a bad idea but it’s less immediate and doesn’t have a lot of benefits.

Just remember that if you’re going to ask for a reference in person, you should request a meeting rather than ambushing them in between classes when they might have something else to do.

When you ask, make sure to bring along your cover letter, resume, and any other supplemental information you think is relevant. You’ll cap off all of this with your request letter. It’s a great idea to follow up your meeting with an email thanking them for their time, no matter what their answer was.

If you’re going to go the route of sending an email or mail request, you’ll want to include all of the information that you would bring to a personal meeting. If you do not get a response in a few days, sending a follow-up email thanking them for their consideration and asking if they need any additional information can prompt them to respond.

If you’re not meeting in person, make sure to explain in your email or snail mail letter where you know them from. Your name might not be instantly recognizable to them, but if you tell them you were in their Fall 2020 Algebra class, it can help them place you.

Tips for Requesting an Academic Reference Letter

Sometimes asking for a favor can be the most difficult thing, asking for this letter from a professor or other academic professional definitely qualifies as one of these nerve-wracking times. The following tips can help you make the big ask.

  1. Don’t expect a yes. Even if you have a great relationship with the teacher in question, there are many reasons why they are not willing to write a reference letter. It’s important that you stay positive and grateful regardless of the reaction you receive from the person you’ve asked, as this is an important part of the professional skills you need to develop.

  2. Be tactful and professional. Keep the conversation very professional and remember that this is a big step toward your future coming together the way you want. Don’t waylay the teacher as they’re getting out of a lecture — set up a meeting via email and be straightforward about the nature of your request.

  3. Give them lots of time. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute. Every teacher you have has a lot of students and they may get a lot of asks. They also have busy lives of their own and might not have a lot of free time. Don’t let your procrastination be their problem.

  4. Help with the details. Give your recommender a few highlights or bullet points that they can address in the letter. Having an outline to follow or some of the work done for them might be the encouragement they need to agree. Even better, send them a copy of the job description or program details along with your resume and cover letter.

    If you can tell them exactly what sort of qualities you’d like for them to highlight, you’ll make their job easier and come away with a more impressive recommendation letter.

In-Person Request for Academic Referral Letter Template

September 10, 2020

Hope Student
123 North Street
Big City, WI 53583
(123) 456-7890
Hope.student@email.com

Professor Pat Person
College of Success
123 College Street
School City, WI 53583

Dear Professor Person,

I greatly enjoyed taking your Math class last semester and learned quite a lot. In fact, it cemented my belief that I want to pursue a career in mathematics and accounting. I am hoping that you feel you know me well enough and have a high enough regard for my academic abilities to write a recommendation letter for my credentials file.

I’m specifically looking to be awarded the Accounting Scholarship from ACME Accounting and have enclosed my cover letter to the scholarship committee as well as a copy of my application. I’m also enclosing a summary sheet to refresh your memory of my achievements in your class and outside of the classroom.

Please let me know if you are comfortable endorsing me for this scholarship. I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have or provide further information to help you write your recommendation.

Thank you so much for all you have done for me and for taking the time to review this request.

Sincerely,

Hope Student

Email or Snail Mail Reference and Request Sample Letter

September 10, 2020

Hope Student
123 North Street
Big City, WI 53583
(123) 456-7890
Hope.student@email.com

Professor Pat Person
College of Success
123 College Street
School City, WI 53583

Dear Professor Person,

I am writing to you to request you to provide an academic reference for me as I begin my job search for a summer internship. I greatly enjoyed taking your Math class last semester and learned quite a lot. In fact, it cemented my belief that I want to pursue a career in mathematics and accounting. I am hoping that you feel you know me well enough and have a high enough regard for my academic abilities to write a recommendation letter for my credentials file.

I am targeting a few local tutoring programs and would like to work with children who are having trouble in math. I think a letter from you would provide any potential employers with the information they need to see that I’d be a good fit for their program. I’m enclosing a copy of my cover letter and resume for your reference. I’ve also added a summary sheet to refresh your memory on my achievements in your class and outside of the classroom.

Please let me know if you are comfortable endorsing me as a tutor. I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have or provide further information to help you write your recommendation.

Thank you so much for all you have done for me and for taking the time to review this request.

Sincerely,

Hope Student

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Kristin Kizer

Author

Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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