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How to Write a Letter Asking for a Reference

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Asking a teacher, professor or a former supervisor for a reference can be awkward, but it is an important step toward searching for a job or getting into college or graduate school. Don't ever simply list someone as a reference on your resume without asking first if he or she could give you a positive reference. The best way to ask for a reference is in person, however, if you aren't able to ask in person, a letter is an appropriate way to obtain a reference.

Set your margins to 1 inch; this is standard business letter format. Make sure that your alignment is flush left.

Open the letter by typing your full mailing address, without your name. Skip a space, and type the full date. Skip another space, and type the recipient's full name, title, and business address.

Write the salutation "Dear (Mr. or Ms. last name):" unless you are writing to a former instructor or professor with a PhD. In that case you would begin the letter with "Dear Dr. (last name):" If you aren't sure if your instructor had a doctorate, check the faculty directory at the school. If the person is listed in the directory with a Dr. before his or her name, make sure that you include the title.

In the body of the text, open the letter by reminding the person who you are. It is important to include relevant dates, course numbers and sections (if applicable) and places.

Clearly explain what you are applying for, and ask if he or she would provide you with a positive reference. Do not be afraid to ask about the positive reference. It is vital to know in advance if a potential reference doesn't remember you or does not feel comfortable giving you a reference. You may feel embarrassed, but this gives you the opportunity to ask someone else who might be more appropriate.

Provide information about the reference. For example, explain whether he or she should expect a telephone call from a potential employer, or needs to write a letter of recommendation. If a letter is required, provide the contact information for the person or persons who will receive the letter.

Include a resume and a copy of the ad for the job, or a printout about the program you are applying for from the university's website. This way, your reference will have a solid idea about what you have been doing since you last saw each other, as well as what the job or school program is about. Having these documents will enable your reference to give you a more thorough, specific reference. In the text of your letter, refer to these documents so he or she knows why you included them.

Thank your reference for his or her time and consideration. Explain that you will follow up in two weeks by phone or email. If the reference is for a job and you need it sooner, follow up in one week if you have not received a reply to your letter. Provide your email and phone number and ask your reference to contact you with any additional questions.

Close the letter by typing "Sincerely," or "Respectfully," and then skip three lines. Type your full name. Print the letter and sign your name in blue or black ink above the typed name.

Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each place where the recipient will have to mail the letter, if applicable.

Follow up in the time period that you specified in the letter by phone or email to see if the recipient has questions. This also serves the purpose of reminding a busy person about the letter or reference.


Check with the school program or job to see if your reference letters have arrived (if applicable). If you are missing a letter, follow up again with the person writing the reference.


If you require a letter of recommendation, give the person at least one month prior to the due date to write the letter to ensure that he or she has plenty of time to write you a quality letter.



About the Author

Natalie Smith is a technical writing professor specializing in medical writing localization and food writing. Her work has been published in technical journals, on several prominent cooking and nutrition websites, as well as books and conference proceedings. Smith has won two international research awards for her scholarship in intercultural medical writing, and holds a PhD in technical communication and rhetoric.

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