Recommendation letters and references

I’ve had some conversations with students lately and I noticed they know very little about recommendation letters. In the spirit of transparency, I thought I’d provide some information that can help students make the best decision about asking for recommendations and references.

What goes into a recommendation letter?

When I write a rec. letter, I’m expected to mention how long I’ve known the student and in what capacity. Hint: If I don’t know you well enough (i.e. you haven’t taken a class with me, you haven’t worked closely with me on PRSSA or something similar), it’s best not to ask for a letter.

Next, I’m expected to explain why I recommend the student. What are the student’s demonstrated abilities that make her/him right for the job? By demonstrated abilities, this means that I have to support my claims with specific examples from your performance. This often involves talking about your assignments and class performance. In fact, Clemson now requires you fill out a FERPA waiver* stating you allow me to discuss this confidential information in the letter. Hint: If you haven’t performed very well in my class, it’s in your best interest not to ask me for a letter.

Often, I’m expected to rank you among my other students. For example, I can state that “this student was in the top 1% of her class” or “in the top 5% of students I’ve ever worked with.” Hint: Ask for a recommendation from a professor who can rank you (very) high.

What should you send me along with your request for a letter?

First, think about who can give you a great recommendation based on your great performance. If you ask me for a letter but you’ve not done great in my class, you put both of us in an awkward position. I usually avoid to write letters if I can’t say that I highly recommend you for a position, without any reservations.

Second, contact the person and ask if they could write you a letter by a certain date. Or, ask if they agree to be listed as a reference. Never, ever list someone as a reference without getting their approval first! If they do agree, then:

Third, send a formal request including the items in the FERPA waiver*. Attach a current resume and the information about the position you’re applying for. Include a firm deadline by which the letter needs to be received (no, that cannot be “tomorrow” – it should be at least one week).

If you’re an employer and you read this, can you help out? What do you look for in recommendation letters professors write for their students?

FERPA waiver*

Your request for a recommendation letter should include the following information (which you can type in the body of an email):


I, _______, am currently or have been a student at Clemson University. I hereby give Clemson University permission to disclose the following student education records under the following conditions:

1. Student Education Records to be disclosed:

2. Person or entity to which the above-referenced Student Education Records can be disclosed:

3. Purpose for which the Student Education Records can be disclosed:

4. This permission to disclose Student Education Records will remain in effect until _______________

Student Name

Student Signature




  1. Here’s a question:

    I used to be a student five years go. Now I’m considering grad school, and many times grad schools want a letter from an old professor. In many cases it has either been a) too long for professors to remember me, or b) they never knew me that well to begin with.

    What do you suggest?

  2. I think the best you can do is help jog your professors’ memory (the ones who knew you). Remind them what course you were in, and any other specifics about your behavior and your work that you can. For example, remind them about your class participation, the topics of your papers, as well as the grades you got in the course and even specific assignments, if any of them were remarkable. Good luck!

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