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How to Ask For Letter of Recommendation

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When applying for a job, a university, or any other position, you might be asked to provide a letter of recommendation, otherwise known as a reference letter. Providing quality recommendation letters can help you stand out amongst other candidates applying for the same position, but how does one go about getting a reference letter?

Asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation can be a nerve-wracking task, but if you keep in mind a few simple considerations in doing so, you're likely to receive a positive result.

Types of Recommendation Letters

Consider the type of letter of recommendation that will be most applicable 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.

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 weight, professionally speaking.

How to Ask For a Recommendation Letter

1. Ask Early

It's important to recognize that, when you ask someone for a reference letter, writing that letter may not be at the top of their priorities. For this reason, it's a good idea to give the individual whom you are asking a ​decent window of time to complete the letter​ and ensure that it is done well.

Key takeaway:​ Avoid putting anyone on the spot by asking for a fast turnaround. If possible, give at least two weeks notice.

2. Ask Politely

Your references are not, by any means, obliged to give you a letter of recommendation. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, make sure ​you are respectful in the way that you phrase the request​. It never hurts to subtly flatter him or her, as well. Let your reference know the reasons why you are asking them, of all people, to write your letter; this could mean telling them how much you have enjoyed working for them, how much importance you give to their opinion, or ways that they have influenced you to be a better worker. No matter the reason you might have to ask this person for a reference letter, ​be authentic and sincere with your compliments​ -- in other words, don't go overboard!

Key takeaway:​ In asking for a recommendation letter, give the individual a reason to write it. In other words, treat your reference the way you want them to portray you in the letter that they write.

3. Determine the Best Method

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.

Key takeaway:​ The method you choose to deliver your request depends on who you are asking; as long as you are respectful in your approach and do not put unnecessary pressure on your desired reference, the method you use should not negatively impact their decision.

4. Provide Necessary Information & Details

To help your reference write a more thorough, effective letter of recommendation, you should provide ​basic details of the position you are applying for.​ They will also likely need a reminder of the ​skills and qualifications that make you a valuable asset.

To jog their memory and provide some needed context, it's helpful to provide one or more of the following:

  • Your resume
  • Performance reviews
  • List of relevant achievements or skills
  • Description of the job you are applying for
  • The deadline for the recommendation letter

5. Thank Your Reference(s)

Whenever somebody accepts your request of writing you a recommendation letter, they are agreeing to take time out of their schedule to write a formal letter of reasons why you are qualified for a certain position. For this reason, it's incredibly important to ​express your gratitude and appreciation for their support.​ Your thank you doesn't have to be very elaborate; a short, simple thank you note, whether hand written or emailed, should suffice.

Additional Tips

  • Do not​ ask people outside of your professional sphere; these people do not have first-hand knowledge of you as a person or employee that a proper letter of recommendation requires
    • Example:​ if you're a manager in a mid-sized company, your direct supervisor is the best person to ask; do not email the CEO.
    • Similarly, if you're a student, ask professors, academic advisers, or mentors for reference letters; don't email the provost or the university president.
  • Use caution in asking for a recommendation from someone with whom you've had workplace conflict, especially if you cannot review the letter prior to submission. You could receive a mediocre, or, even negative, response.
  • If you're applying for another job and want a letter of recommendation from your current supervisor and want to avoid any awkwardness...
    • 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.

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