How to Request a Reference Letter from a Professor Years After Graduating

Woman writing a letter on college campus

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It's a common question. In fact, my students ask about this even before they graduate. In the words of one reader:

"I've been out of school for two years now but am now applying to grad school. I have been teaching English abroad for the past two years so I don't have the opportunity to meet with any of my former professors in person and to be honest I never really cultivated a deep relationship with any of them. I want to send an email to my former academic major adviser to see if she can write a letter for me. I knew her through all of college and took two classes with her including a very small seminar class. I think of all my professors she knows me the best. How should I approach the situation?"

The faculty is used to being approached by former students who request letters. It's not unusual, so don't fear. The way in which you make contact is important. Your goal is to reintroduce yourself, remind the faculty member of your work as a student, fill her in on your current work, and request a letter. Personally, I find an email to be best because it permits the professor to stop and look up your records - grades, transcript, and so on before replying. What should your email say? Keep it short. For example, consider the following email:

Dear Dr. Advisor,
My name is X. I graduated from MyOld University two years ago. I was a Psychology major and you were my advisor. In addition, I was in your Applied Basketball class in Fall 2000, and Applied Basketball II in Spring 2002. Since graduating I have been teaching English in X country. I am planning on returning to the US soon and am applying for graduate study in Psychology, specifically, PhD programs in Subspecialty. I'm writing to ask if you would consider writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I am not in the US so cannot visit you in person, but perhaps we could schedule a phone call to catch up and so I can seek your guidance.

Offer to send copies of old papers, if you have them. When you confer with the professor, ask whether the professor feels that she can write a helpful letter on your behalf.

It may feel awkward on your part but rest assured that this is not an unusual situation. Good luck!