How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

We frequently receive questions about recommendations, one of the most common of which is “should I use a professor as a recommender?”  The answer to this is not straightforward, and can be best encapsulated with “it depends.”

Most schools require two recommendations, and the typical approach is to use a current and former supervisor to do them.  But sometimes this is either not practical or not ideal, in which case it might make sense to approach a former professor.  After all, you did well in college and made a good impression.  In fact, you recall taking a couple of classes in your major from your favorite professor, who seemed to look favorably on you compared to your classmates.  But what if it’s been several years and despite your best intentions, you have not maintained contact with the professor?  This is not unusual, and don’t fret.   For tenure track faculty, it is likely they are still there, doing their thing, so tracking them down is usually not difficult.  Since professors see a lot of students come and go, despite your high performance in their class, it’s best to go visit in person.  Make an appointment via phone or email and get back to campus.

Professors, like any successful professional, have big egos, so it’s always nice to compliment them on the classes you took and how much you learned.  If you are going back to this professor, it’s likely you enjoyed the classes and took away something valuable, so this part should not be difficult.  One advantage of using a professor, is that they obviously are in big favor of advancing one’s education, so it won’t likely be a hard sell to convince them it’s a good idea for you to be going back to school.  Just like you might do with your boss or supervisor, ask the professor if he would feel comfortable helping you with a recommendation.  If the answer is no—it’s probably because the professor simply does not remember enough about you or your performance, in which case, you can either try to remind him/her, or just move on, since it is in your best interest to have someone who can comment directly on your potential and performance.  This is one area that is particularly challenging for professors, since ideally, they would need to have some insight into your performance both inside and outside the classroom.

For this reason, it makes sense to track down a faculty member with whom you were involved beyond just regular coursework.  Did you take a practicum or capstone project class, for example?  Were there any professors who took the class on an international study trip by chance?  Even a faculty member who was an advisor to a club you were involved with can add the extra insight required for  a good b-school recommendation.

Finally, you want to ascertain if the professor thought/thinks of you as unique compared to other students they have seen come through their courses.  If you were a standout to them, it’s likely they will better be able to articulate why to an admissions committee.

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Scott Bryant has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Veritas Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons.

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