Letters of recommendation can be valuable assets for aspiring undergraduate and graduate students, new job seekers, and even employees looking to move up in their organization.
However, you’ll not only need to determine who to ask — spoiler alert: Your BFF’s mother is not a good reference unless she was also your college professor or you interned at her company — but you also need to establish how and when to ask them. Understanding recommendation letter etiquette will go a long way in helping you procure the kind of correspondence that will impress college admission boards or potential employers.
This article will explain what you need to know to ask for and receive those great letters of recommendation.
Benefits of having a letter of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are the status quo when it comes to college admissions, particularly for those applying to a graduate or professional school. However, for work-related opportunities, you might think that letters of recommendation are old-fashioned. In a world of soundbite tweets, emails from a smartphone, and text message missives, providing a hiring manager with a thoughtfully written letter might not seem effective.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
While few employers will ask you to present a formal letter of recommendation with your application or following an initial interview, many will be impressed that you took the time and initiative to solicit the letter from a reputable source and send it along with your application or interview follow-up. After all, the more information you can provide about your credentials and your ability to succeed in the position, the more likely an employer will want to learn even more about you. Presenting a solid letter of recommendation — even when not prompted to do so — is a great way to separate your application from the pack and bolster your candidacy.
How to ask for a letter of recommendation
A letter of recommendation request is easier than you might think. To get letters of recommendation into the right hands, follow these steps:
- Determine who should write the letter
- Prepare the writer with the information they need
- Make initial contact with the writer to ask for the letter
- Make more formal contact with the writer
- Remind the writer about the letter and any deadlines that apply
- Thank the writer for lending a helping hand
Determine who should write the letter
The first step in getting a great letter of recommendation is determining who can, should, and will write a letter on your behalf. Ideally, the letter writer will know you well on a personal level and be able to speak authoritatively on matters concerning your character, background, and abilities.
Not everyone you pursue will agree to write a letter, and not everyone who is willing to write a letter will be able to present the type of information that will further your cause. The type of letter writer you want will depend on what you need the recommendation for.
If you’re college-bound, your best bet is to start thinking about who you’d prefer to write letters of recommendation by the beginning of your junior year of high school. Many colleges will require a letter from your guidance counselor as part of the application process. Since these school professionals write letters for students all the time, however, their letters can sometimes come off as impersonal or even cookie-cutter.
Because you want your letter to stand out from the pack, you should make an effort to get to know your high school guidance counselor well before college application season. Set up an appointment to discuss your college and career plans and then arrange for a few follow-up meetings. The goal is to connect with your high school counselor so they’re inclined to write a letter on your behalf that’s punctuated with personal details and reflects your achievements, ambitions, and potential.
It’s also a good idea to develop a rapport with your teachers, especially the ones teaching classes you excel in or those that cover subjects you find particularly interesting. The better the relationships you have with your teachers, the higher they should be on your letter-writing “ask” list.
Graduate school applications
If you’re bound for graduate school, determining who should make your letter-writing shortlist is going to depend on where your jumping-off point is.
If you’re planning to enter grad school directly following the completion of your undergraduate studies, your best bet is to identify professors who teach in the area of study you’ll be pursuing in graduate school. For instance, if you’re applying to a master’s in social work program, seek out undergraduate social work, psychology, sociology, or even statistics professors (since demonstrating excellence in this type of coursework can translate well to the related graduate program).
If you’re applying to law school or a similar professional graduate school that doesn’t require a specific type of undergraduate curriculum, seek out professors whose classes required you to demonstrate the skills and abilities necessary for law school success, such as those that require critical thinking, vast amounts of information assimilation, and writing.
However, if you’re re-entering graduate school as a working professional, your selection of letter writers will hinge on how long you’ve been out of school and how and if the graduate program you’re applying for relates to your work experience. If you’re just a year or two out of college — or you’ve managed to keep up with relationships — you can approach old professors for letters. You can also look to professional colleagues who respect your work and abilities, as well as bosses and mentors who want to see you succeed further as you develop in your current field or transition to a new career. The closer the writer’s experience aligns with the graduate program you are applying for, the better.
Looking for suitable letter of recommendation writers poses different challenges for job seekers. If you’re applying for an entry-level position, look to professors, internship supervisors, mentors, and former employers, even if the jobs you previously held are unrelated to the position you’re seeking. If you’re seeking to move up in your career, look to former bosses and even colleagues who can accurately advocate for you based on their knowledge of your qualifications and work ethic. Whenever possible, try to select letter writers with substantial experience in the field you’re pursuing.
Prepare the writer with the information they need
If you want someone to do you a favor, make it easy for them. And if that favor is writing you a strong letter of recommendation, provide them with all the information they need so they can easily portray you and your accomplishments in the best light possible.
For job seekers, this could be as simple as providing them with a copy of your resume or a link to your LinkedIn profile. If you have additional accomplishments you’d like them to know about that aren’t on your resume or professional profile, create a bulleted list of additional information. This could include information regarding articles you’ve published, boards you’ve sat on, or volunteer work you’ve done. You can send them a copy of the job description and highlight areas that align with your qualifications.
When determining which information to provide, your litmus test should be: Will my chances of getting the interview or job be enhanced if my prospective employer has this information? If the answer is yes, provide it to the letter-writer and ask them to include it if possible.
If you’re in school and don’t have a robust work history or much to report about yourself outside of school, though, provide a list of your most salient qualities and accomplishments to your letter-writer. If the person is a professor, remind them which of their classes you took, the grade you received, and any interesting facts about your enthusiasm for the subject matter that may have manifested while you were their student, such as the topic of a paper you wrote or your consistent class participation.
Remember, this is not a time to display false modesty. It’s a time to show the letter-writer that they can feel confident in believing in you and your abilities. In other words, it’s OK to brag a little.
Make initial contact with the writer to ask for the letter
The best practice for requesting a letter of recommendation is to make the initial request in person and then follow up with a more formal request. Either pick up the phone and discuss the letter with the writer, visit them face to face in their office or business, or even send your initial request via a personal email. Be sure to give the person plenty of time to write the letter, though. Last-minute requests place an undue burden on the writer and can even be interpreted as rude.
Keep in mind that most professionals, teachers, and guidance counselors have received similar requests before and understand that people applying to school or looking for a new job need these types of letters. Often, as in the case of school counselors, composing letters is part of their job. It’s fair to assume that the person you’re asking to help you has also asked for help from others in their past. Most will not hesitate to write your letter and will appreciate that you reached out in a personal way to ask for their assistance.
Make more formal contact with the writer
Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead from your informal outreach, you can contact the writer in a more formal manner for the letter. After thanking them for agreeing to write the letter, you’ll want to provide all the information necessary for them to construct the best possible letter of recommendation.
For example, if you’re applying for a job, be sure to include some details about the role, such as how the position is titled and what your primary responsibilities will be. If applying to college or grad school, remind them of the school and your primary area of study. Include your resume or “brag sheet” — that list of accomplishments previously discussed — and a copy of your transcripts (if relevant).
Be sure to provide the recipient’s full name, including title and company name, address, and email if relevant. If the letter is to be sent via mail, provide a pre-addressed, stamped envelope. If email is the preferred delivery method, make sure the writer knows what the preferred format is (e.g., written in the body of an email or provided as an attachment in Word or PDF format). Include a recommended subject line in your instructions, something like “Letter of Recommendation for Job Candidate Jane Doe.”
If the letter needs to be uploaded onto a portal or website by the writer, send a link to the site along with step-by-step instructions on how to upload the letter, what format it should be in, and any other information the writer might need to make the letter delivery process as easy and foolproof as possible.
Be sure to provide all of the necessary information in ample time for your writer to be able to compose a good letter on your behalf.
Remind the writer about the letter and any deadlines that apply
If there’s a due date for the letter, try to follow up with the writer about two weeks before it’s due to give them enough time. If there’s no set application deadline but you hope to have the letter written as soon as possible, follow up with the writer a week or so after making the initial request.
Be sure to thank them for agreeing to write the letter and reiterate how much you appreciate their help.
Thank the writer for lending a helping hand
Once the letter has been sent, it’s important to send a thank-you note to the writer. This is one of those instances where a hand-written note of appreciation is in order. Taking the time to handwrite a note of appreciation is a nice gesture that shows the writer that you’re grateful for their time and attention. If you decide to follow up by email, be sure to express the same sentiments in a personalized email.
Think about following up again when you accept the position or are admitted to the school program, reiterating your gratitude for their help. It’s always satisfying, from the writer’s perspective, to know you helped someone move in the direction of their goals.
How to get the career you really want
If you’re on your path to a better and more fulfilling career, the I Will Teach You to Be Rich team has plenty of great resources to help you on your journey. The more you explore the IWT philosophy, the more you’ll see that you really can take control of your financial future and live the Rich Life you deserve.
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