Asking for a letter of recommendation is rarely easy for most people.
However, people who are in a position to write you a letter of recommendation, such as professors, are used to being asked to do this, and most consider it part of their job.
Things get more complicated if you have to ask for a recommendation letter at the last minute. It can feel awkward to ask someone for a favor and then add “and be quick about it!”
Of course, you shouldn’t actually say that although you might be worried about what you will say.
Keep reading and we’ll offer some tips to help you through this awkward situation.
If you have to ask for a last-minute letter of recommendation, you should introduce yourself, explain why you are asking at the last minute, acknowledge that they might say no, tell them you will provide any necessary information and include a sincere compliment.
Last-minute letters of recommendation
There are a lot of reasons you might need a last-minute letter of recommendation, most of them not in your control.
Common reasons for needing a last-minute recommendation are that someone you already asked dropped out at the last minute, you only found out about the opportunity or you simply procrastinated.
The better you know a person, the easier it is to ask them to do something for you at the last minute and the less of an imposition it will seem.
For this reason, it’s best to ask this favor of people that you know well if possible.
However, by its very nature, a letter of recommendation often comes from someone in a higher position than you that you look up to, such as a professor or a supervisor at work.
Therefore, you shouldn’t avoid asking for a last-minute letter just because you do not have a close relationship with the person. It is better to try to get a letter from the best person to give the recommendation than to just ask someone you know better because it’s easier.
You can skip this step if this person is your thesis advisor, your work supervisor or someone else you currently work with on a regular basis.
However, if this is a professor from a large class or one you haven’t taken a class from in a while, you should use specific language to introduce yourself:
“My name is Mary Smith, and I took your class on Introduction to Ethics in Fall 2020.”
Apologize but don’t grovel
It’s appropriate to apologize for making the request at the last minute and acknowledge that you are aware this adds an extra burden to the potential letter-writer.
However, your apology should be proportionate. That means it should be short and matter-of-fact.
You can say “I’m really sorry to be asking you for this at the last minute.” Don’t add something like “I realize this was really irresponsible of me and I shouldn’t be asking you.”
Provide a reason
It can also be helpful to provide a reason why you are asking at the last minute. This should generally be part of or come right after the apology, but as with the apology, don’t overdo it.
Your reason might be a fairly straightforward one: “One of my recommenders had a family emergency at the last minute and can’t do one for me after all.”
If you’re asking at the last minute because you procrastinated for any reason, don’t make up a reason why and lie about it, but you don’t have to just say that you kept putting it off either.
Something like “I have been so overwhelmed with other work that I lost track of time” acknowledges that you were at fault here without going into details.
Maybe you have a genuinely good reason for asking at the last minute: your spouse filed for divorce, or your sibling was diagnosed with a serious illness.
It’s best not to get into detail about these kinds of things.
You can simply say something like “I had a family emergency.” This is a useful all-encompassing term that lets people know that something serious is happening but generally discourages them from asking questions unless they know you well.
Of course, if you are close to the person you are asking, it would be fine to go into more detail and explain the hardships you are dealing with.
Give them an out
It’s polite to make it easy for them to say no.
Some people don’t do this. They are very good at being persuasive and turning a “no” into a “yes,” but if you are not skilled at doing this, it can backfire on you, and you may just come across as pushy and inconsiderate.
If you’re already really good at it, you’re probably not reading this article!
Therefore, you should err on the side of giving them a way out of the request.
Think of this as a courtesy as much as anything else.
The person probably knows how urgent this is and that you don’t have time to canvas half a dozen people to get your last-minute letter. They may well put aside some other important work to meet your request.
This serves as an acknowledgment that you understand that they are doing you a big favor.
Here’s a good way to word this:
“I know you’re very busy, and I completely understand if you don’t have time to do this.”
Offer your help
Some writers of recommendation letters really prefer it if you provide them some information they can use in the letter. This can, for example, help a busy professor who has dozens or hundreds or students.
Others may already have a good idea of what they want to say, but they will want you to pass on any information that you specifically want them to include in the letter.
If you are asking them at the last minute, you should make sure you have this information at your fingertips.
When you ask, you can say something like “I can give you some information about my accomplishments if you’d like me to.”
Their answer will almost certainly be yes!
Prepare this ahead of time. Think in terms of both what would be relevant coming from them in particular and in relation to your application.
A sincere compliment can’t hurt
Why are you asking this person to write your letter of recommendation?
Presumably, it’s because you genuinely enjoyed and got something from their class or from working under them.
You should say this, but make it sincere and specific. Here’s one example:
“I’m asking you because it’s actually your class on the French symbolists that inspired me to pursue a degree in literature.”
Last-Minute Letter of Recommndation Sample (E-mail)
Here is a sample of how you might ask for such a letter by email:
How to ask in person
Asking by email might feel less intimidating than asking in person, but if you have a choice, asking in person is the best option.
Here is an example of a script that you can use for that initial ask:
“I need a letter of recommendation for my graduate school application, and it’s a really tight deadline. I know this is short notice, and I understand if you say no, but I loved your class, and it would mean a lot to me if you could write one for me.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.