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Ask Early, Ask Politely and Approach the Right People
A letter of recommendation serves as a calling card when you’re on an interview, letting a prospective employer know someone in a position of authority is confident you’ll make a good employee. The more specific you are when you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation, the more likely the document will be an effective tool for you to use in your job search.
Deciding Whom to Ask
Former supervisors, professors, teachers and coaches are all appropriate people to approach for letters of recommendation. The key is to seek out people who know you well and have a high opinion of your work, your skill or your professional ethics. Avoid asking friends or family members to write a letter for you; it’s assumed they’ll have nice things to say. A letter from a former boss or professor carries more clout.
Types of Recommendation Letters
Consider the type of letter of recommendation that will be most helpful to you.
- Standard: The traditional catch-all letter is somewhat generic in that it focuses on your skills, reputation, work ethic and the writer’s knowledge of your professional history. This type of letter is usually written on the writer’s letterhead, signed and converted into a PDF that you can reprint or attach as necessary as you apply for various positions.
- Specific: A specific letter of recommendation is one in which someone is referring you for a unique opportunity or recognition. For example, if you’re applying for or being nominated for an industry award that has specific requirements, a letter of recommendation or support should be specific to that cause. It’s a letter that you will only use once.
- Online: Some prospective employers will ask your references to write a letter of recommendation directly to them, without your having a chance to view it. If this is the case, make sure the person you listed as a reference knows you well and is willing to write something positive on your behalf.
- Self-written letter: No one knows the skills you want to promote better than you, so it’s considered professionally appropriate to draft your own letter of recommendation and ask someone to read, edit and sign it for you. This saves the writer the time of crafting something from scratch or guessing at the traits you want to highlight.
Note: Avoid putting anyone on the spot by asking for a fast turnaround. Provide at least a week’s notice.
How to Ask
You can ask for a letter of recommendation in person, by phone or via a social media private messaging feature, but an email request gives you more options for facilitating communication. You can include links to your online resume posting and attach performance reviews or other documents that demonstrate your professionalism and achievements. Putting your request in writing this way is also a professional courtesy for the person you’re contacting. The person has the opportunity to mentally process the request and decide if he wants to write a letter. And, if for any reason, he doesn't feel as if he can endorse you, an email gives him time to craft a response to that effect.
Note: You’re more likely to have a positive response to your request if you let the person know why you want her recommendation. Say you respect her opinion, enjoyed working with her and know her word will carry weight.
Who Not to Ask
It’s not appropriate or even productive to approach people outside of your professional sphere who don’t have first-hand knowledge of you as a person or employee for a letter of recommendation. For example, if you’re a manager in a mid-sized company, your direct supervisor is the best person to ask; don’t email the CEO. In the same manner, if you’re a student, ask professors, academic advisers or mentors for letters of recommendation; don’t email the provost or the university president.
Note: Use caution in asking for a recommendation from someone with whom you’ve had workplace conflict, especially if the letter is being submitted without your review. You could get a lukewarm or even negative response.
The big question is, of course, how to ask your current supervisor for a letter of recommendation to apply for another job. Employers understand that this is somewhat awkward, and you may be able to request during the new job application process that your current employer not be contacted for a reference unless you are a finalist for the job.
Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.