I am currently thinking about getting a masters degree and many of the schools I look for require 3 reference letters from professors that has taught me.

Unfortunately, I've never really invested in building personal relationships with my professors and though I am quite confident with my ability, my abilities weren't "amazing" to the point where the professor would notice me personally.

Furthermore, I've already graduated and worked for more than a year, hence I don't believe any of my previous professors retain much memory of me.

In such a situation, how would I go about getting 1 (let alone multiple) reference letters from previous professors?

Related: here, here, here

  • 1
    What kind of master’s program is this: a research degree or a taught degree? Maybe the requirements of the same university are lower for a taught program. Jan 2, 2017 at 19:03
  • Could you add a sentence stating whether in your location (country/culture/academic system) that situation is "by design"? I suspect not, as you are not specifically point out the issue as a cultural one, but it may be good to make that bit of information explicit. Jan 3, 2017 at 10:26
  • Could you state your country?
    – user111388
    Dec 3, 2020 at 12:04
  • The professors may not need to "retain much memory" of you, if they have records they can data-mine to find (hopefully favourable) things to say about you. For example, I've been in the habit of keeping copies of the feedback I give students on lab reports etc. (and even if I didn't keep copies myself, my institution's Moodle server does). Dec 3, 2020 at 14:58

3 Answers 3


Unfortunately you've left yourself in a tight spot. This is actually one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to undergrads: if you're thinking of grad school, build relationships with professors. Even to the point of skipping a class you would prefer more in order to take another (still-relevant) class with a professor you're trying to build a relationship with.

Now that you're here however, I don't think you're in an impossible-to-salvage situation:

  • First off, see if any of your letters of recommendation can come from non-academic sources. In my experience it's not uncommon for schools to want, say, two of three to be professors and would take a third one from your current boss (assuming your job is in any way relevant to what you want to study). That would get you a third of the way there.
  • Secondly, begin with any professors you took more than one class with - that sort of thing tends to stand out unless they're huge sections with too many students to notice them all. Seeing your name on papers and grades twice may have cemented you in their mind enough that a gentle reminder will get you there.
  • Third, turn to any professors you did particularly well with, or had very small classes with. Did you have a project and presentation that might have made you stand out?
  • Fourth, look for professors whose classes are particularly relevant to your desired area of study. It may not help you much with being recognized, but the fact that your program fits their interests so well might inspire them to dig a little deeper.
  • And finally, if at all possible, go visit your professors in person to ask. They may be more likely to remember you if they have both your face and name to go with your request. If you have to do it over email, include some details to help them out; tell them exactly what class you took with them and when, maybe include a link to your Linkedin page or webpage so they can go see your picture if they want, etc.

However you end up doing it, simply explain that you weren't originally planning on grad school and have been in industry for a year, but now you really want to further your studies. Most professors will be inclined to help you out as much as they can, or at worst they should be willing to tell you if they don't think they can write you a good letter, giving you a chance to ask someone else.


Professors are there to help. You may not need to stand out in their mind as long as you can remind them of your progress in their courses. Just be sure to focus on your achievements in their course and point out the helpfulness their teachings provided. If possible, show them some old coursework that they gave you good grades on. This would remind them that they were happy with you in the past.

Also, I imagine you were required to do an internship and/or special project at some point. These usually require you to meet one on one with a professor/mentor throughout the project. They would be my first choice for the letter whether I was close or not.


As has already been stated, you may be able to use a letter from a supervisor at your job (check the application instructions, or ask); and when you contact an instructor, share some work you did in the class.

In addition:

  • send an unofficial transcript to the instructor when you reach out.

  • if it's difficult for you to get to the person's office, that's okay, a phone conversation can still give you the personal touch. If you think it might help, you could send a photograph.

  • Make sure you ask in such a way that you'll be able to pick up on code language in the person's response (e.g. "You'd really be better off asking someone else" is a red flag; if you're not sure how to interpret a response of this type, it's okay to ask if you should be taking that as an indication that the person wouldn't be able to write a very helpful letter).

  • The key is to find someone enthusiastic and upbeat, who gives you the vibes s/he wants to support your dream by emphasizing the positive, can make a well-written letter, and will keep to the timeline. Be alert to the instructor possibly wanting you to send an outline of your strengths, to make the letter writing process easier.

  • If you have any trouble, try the director of undergraduate studies, and explain to him or her what you explained to us.

  • It may be a worthwhile investment for the future to take a class you're interested in, in spring semester, making a point to get to know the instructor.

  • 4
    It certainly isn't universally true that it's "fine to get one letter from a supervisor at work". There may be some programs where this would be fine, but there are others where it would be reason to throw out the application. If the poster can give more details of their field, we can perhaps give them more information as to which might be the case.
    – Tom Church
    Jan 4, 2017 at 5:36
  • @TomChurch - I see. Hope you don't mind if I use your info to make a correction to my answer. Jan 5, 2017 at 0:11
  • Of course! My experience is that fields that are more purely academic (such as pure mathematics, the one I have experience with) would find this inappropriate, simply for the understandable reason that a work supervisor is unlikely to know anything about research in pure mathematics. But more applied fields, or those with closer connections to industry, might well be different.
    – Tom Church
    Jan 7, 2017 at 16:42
  • @TomChurch - Well, if I were on a pure math admissions committee, and the candidate presented two letters that addressed the candidate's mathematical abilities, I would be glad to read a third letter from the candidate's boss, extolling the candidate's work ethic, collaborative style, ability to communicate, show up to work on time, organize work flow, write clear documentation, do background research, etc. And above all, a creative approach to problem solving. Problems needing solving can arise in a variety of jobs. Jan 7, 2017 at 17:30

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