24 October, 2020
By Mike Simpson
How to ask for a letter of recommendation. It’s a question that plagues students and job seekers alike.
Because having one is sometimes a necessity. It can be a requirement for college applications or may make all of the difference when you’re trying to land your dream job.
The trick is, asking for a letter of recommendation is, well, awkward, and often anxiety-inducing. You’re essentially requesting a formal declaration from someone that you have what it takes to thrive in the job or at that school. You’re asking someone to put themselves on the line for you. That’s a big deal.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for a letter of recommendation. You just need to approach it the right way. If you want to make sure you handle the situation properly, here’s everything you need to know.
What Is a Letter of Recommendation?
Okay, before we dig into how to ask for a letter of recommendation, let’s pause for a moment and talk about what one even is. While we’ve covered letters of recommendation in-depth before, here’s an overview.
In the most basic sense, it’s a short document, formatted like a letter, where one person describes the capabilities of another. Usually, they are written by people who know you on a professional or academic level. That way, they can describe what you have to offer and why the employer or school should consider you.
Letters of recommendation are most frequently used when you’re applying to college or graduate programs. Schools may get hundreds (if not thousands) of applicants, only accepting a small fraction. For example, Harvard’s 2020 admission rate was a measly 4.9 percent, admitting just 1,980 candidates out of 40,248 applicants.
Letters of recommendation help admissions committees decide who to welcome into the school. That’s why there’s usually space to include one, including on the Common App. At times, submitting at least one is recommended, if not outright required.
However, you may use letters of recommendation in your professional life, too. While they aren’t usually required, they can make it easier to stand out as a candidate.
It’s not entirely unlike a referral in that regard. You provide the letter with your application, usually well ahead of when standard reference checks occur. The main difference between the letters and referrals is that the person recommending you doesn’t necessarily have to have a connection to the employer.
Another key point to understand before you worry about how to ask for a recommendation letter is that who you approach matters. You want to focus on professors, past managers, or former colleagues who are well-respected and a degree of related expertise.
That means you need to be strategic about who you approach. For example, if you’re trying to get into medical school, you’re usually better off asking for a letter from hard sciences or pre-med professor instead of your art history instructor. On the professional side, choosing a manager or coworker who works in – or at least understands – your field is often wise, as they may be better equipped to discuss your capabilities.
Now, there are situations where you may need to ask a friend for a letter of recommendation. For example, if you’re asked for a character reference, a friend might do the trick. Beyond that, though, you may be better off with a professor, manager, or colleague.
Common Mistakes When Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
Avoiding certain missteps is a must when you’re asking for a letter of recommendation. You need to take steps to ensure the document shows you in the best light.
First, one big mistake to avoid is not giving the writer an overview of the letter’s purpose. For college admissions, let the professor know where you’re applying and what program you’re trying to get into. For job applications, discuss the nature of the role you want to land.
Another major misstep is rushing the writer. Ideally, you want to give them enough time to create a great narrative, so try to make sure you can give them at least a week.
Additionally, not discussing what the writer will include in the letter is a big no-no. You want to get an idea of what they are going to talk about, particularly which examples they are going to use to highlight your capabilities. That way, you know what to expect, for one. For another, you have a chance to remind the writer about relevant accomplishments and standout moments, ensuring they don’t overlook a critical point in your academic or professional career.
Now, if you’re asked to write it yourself (and they say they’ll just sign it after), don’t necessarily run away screaming. This is actually an opportunity. Plus, if a manager or professor is incredibly busy, it can be common practice.
If that happens to you, seize the chance to really showcase what you want the school or employer to know. Remember, if the professor or manager is worth their salt, they’ll review the letter before signing it, ensuring they agree with what you shared. After all, who wants to stake their name or reputation on something they didn’t review? Almost no one. So, if they sign, it means they agree with what’s in the letter.
Finally, no matter what, don’t forget to say “thank you” to the person honoring your letter of recommendation request. They are doing you a favor, and that deserves some appreciation. If you don’t thank them, they may resent you after. And, you know what that means? No more letters of recommendation for you!
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
When you’re trying to figure out how to ask for a letter of recommendation, you need to consider who’s writing it. Each situation calls for a different approach. So, with that in mind, here’s a break down of how you should handle a letter of recommendation request based on who you’re asking.
Asking for a Recommendation from a Friend
1. Start with Some Kind Words
Before asking a friend for a favor, it’s smart to initiate the conversation or start the email with some kind words. Let them know that you appreciate them and value the relationship.
2. Let Them Know What You’re Trying to Accomplish
In most cases, your friends want you to reach your goals. Spend a few moments letting them know what you’re trying to achieve. For example, are you trying to get into a highly competitive college program? Are you hoping to land your dream job?
This gives your friend some insights about the favor before you’re actually asking for a letter of recommendation.
3. Tell Them How a Letter of Recommendation Relates Your Goal
At times, a friend may not immediately understand how a letter of recommendation can help you achieve your goals. Before you ask them to write anything, tell them why a letter of recommendation is important. That way, they understand why you’re approaching them and why it matters.
4. Describe the Kind of Letter You Need
In most cases, if you’re approaching a friend, you’re going to be requesting a personal letter of recommendation – essentially, a character reference. So, take a moment to tell them what kind of information the letter needs to contain.
Now, this shouldn’t involve you telling them what to say. You technically haven’t asked for the letter yet, so don’t jump the gun. Instead, you should use a descriptive approach, outlining the kind of content involved.
5. Make the Request
Once you’ve gone over the basics, ask your friend to write the letter of recommendation. As you do, let them know that you value their perspective and feel that they could do well at it. Appreciation and admiration go a long way here.
However, also make it clear when you need the letter finished. That way, they can determine if they can actually write one before your deadline.
6. Invite Questions
After you you’re done asking, let them know you’d be happy to answer additional questions. The goal here is to give them a chance to express any concerns, allowing you to address them.
7. Accept Their Decision
If your friend says, “yes,” that’s great. You can go over any details that may need to be covered and let them know that you’re always there to offer input if needed.
However, if you’re friend says, “no,” accept that. Pressuring them to do something that they aren’t comfortable with isn’t a smart move. Plus, that could actually hurt your relationship.
8. Say “Thank You”
Whether you got a “yes” or “no,” say, “thank you.” It’s the polite thing to do.
9. Send an Informational Email
If your friend agreed to write the letter, send a quick informational email. Express your appreciation and provide additional details. This could include an overview of the job or grad school program, for example, as well as the deadline.
10. Follow Up, If Necessary
While your friend may send the letter of recommendation back fast, it’s also possible they won’t. Plan to follow up a day or two before the date you both agreed to if you haven’t received it back.
Now, when you follow up a couple of days before the deadline, don’t be demanding or ask if it’s ready directly. Instead, ask them how it’s going or find out if they are running into any difficulties. That approach is a tad more subtle, acting as a reminder without coming off as pushy.
Asking for a Recommendation from a Coworker
1. Start the Conversation Off Right
Similar to when you want a colleague to be a job reference, it’s best to start with a conversation. However, you don’t want to come out of nowhere with your request. When it comes to asking for a letter of recommendation, it’s always best to start elsewhere.
Spend a moment expressing your admiration for them as a professional. Let them know you respect their skills and experience, as well as their perspective. This sets the stage. You’re telling them that you think they are amazing, and that makes a difference.
2. Discuss Why You Need a Letter of Recommendation
Before you actually request a letter of recommendation, let them know why you need one. It’s another setup step in the discussion, giving them insights about what you’re trying to accomplish and why the letter is important.
3. Make the Initial Ask
Once you’ve outlined what the letter is for, ask if they would write one for you. Additionally, let them know when you would need it by, essentially setting a deadline. This lets you know if they are open to taking on your request based on your timeline.
4. Discuss Some Talking Points
If your coworker says, “yes,” thank them first. Next, spend a moment discussing some potential talking points. Let them know what kind of information you’re hoping they can share, especially examples that highlight your capabilities.
5. Plan for Follow-Up
After the conversation, make a plan for following up. Let them know that you’re going to send an email asking for the letter of recommendation, as well as some additional documentation.
For example, you might include a link to the job ad, an overview of projects you’ve worked on together that they can speak to, and a copy of your resume. That way, they can speak to points that really pack a punch.
6. Send the Email Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
After your conversation, send the email asking for the letter of recommendation quickly. As you craft the message, review the main points from your discussion, including how much you respect them, what you’re asking for, why you’re requesting it, and the supporting documentation.
Make sure to thank them at the end. Additionally, restate the date you need it back by as a reminder.
7. Plan for Follow Up
It’s wise to touch base with your coworker a few days before you need the letter back. As with letters of recommendation from friends, your goal should be to find out if they’ve made progress, run into trouble, or have any questions. That way, you’re giving them an indirect reminder, and the tone stays curious and helpful.
8. Showcase Your Appreciation
Once you have the letter of recommendation in-hand, let them know you appreciate their effort. If they send the document to you in an email, respond immediately, and express your gratitude. If they deliver it in person, thank them right away.
Asking for a Recommendation from a Professor
1. Review Any Relevant Policies
Before you worry about how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, spend a moment reviewing any relevant policies. Some professors discuss their willingness and availability openly in the syllabus and may include strict instructions about how a student has to proceed.
Additionally, the professor may have separate guidelines, standards, or requirements for how to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school and how to request one for employment purposes. If you don’t read through the policies, you may end up shirking the rules. And, if that happens, there’s a good chance the professor is going to refuse your request purely because you didn’t follow the policy.
2. Make an Appointment
Most professors have dozens, if not hundreds, of students at any given point in time. Plus, they typically have only a limited amount of time between classes and may have to get to a different room between each one.
Blindsiding them in the hall or as you exit class is a bad idea. The professor is likely busy and may not remember that you were the one who asked if they are distracted by other responsibilities.
That means, if you want to ask for a letter of recommendation, your best bet is to make an appointment. That way, you have their full attention for a set amount of time.
3. Be Straightforward
One benefit of approaching a professor for a letter of recommendation is that they are expecting to be asked. It’s normal for students to request them for grad school applications, internships, and jobs. What does that mean for you? That you don’t have to beat around the bush.
While you can certainly take a moment to express your admiration for their know-how and imparting their wisdom on to you, focus on getting to the point while extending basic courtesies, like “please” and “thank you.”
Find out if they’d write you a glowing letter of recommendation, “glowing” being the operative word. If they are quick to say “yes,” they probably have some nice things to say about you. If they hesitate or balk, take that as a sign that they may not feel confident about your abilities.
4. Tell Them the Kind of Recommendation Letter You Need
If they are open to providing a letter of recommendation, let them know what it’s for. Different approaches are needed for grad school applications, internships, and jobs. If you don’t tell them what type you’re requesting, they may take the wrong angle.
5. Discuss the Deadline
It’s also crucial that you tell the professor the deadline for your letter during the conversation. If it’s a few weeks away and the professor is open to writing the letter, that should be fine.
However, if the deadline is tight, they may not be able to meet it. That’s why you need to be open about the timeline. If it doesn’t work for them, they can tell you immediately. Then, you can approach a different professor.
6. Send a Follow-Up Email
At the end of your meeting, let the professor know that you’ll send a follow-up email with any relevant supporting materials and instructions about how the letter needs to be delivered. It isn’t uncommon for grad school applications to require the professor send the letter directly to the school, so you’ll need to share those details.
As for other supporting documents, that could include transcripts, an overview of which of their classes you attended, copies of your work from that class, a description of the graduate school program you want to join, or similar information. The idea is to give the professor everything they need to speak to your capabilities.
Make sure you close by expressing your thanks. Even though this is a normal request for many professors, that doesn’t mean it still isn’t a favor. Professors aren’t required to write letters of recommendation, so make an effort to showcase your appreciation.
7. Plan for More Follow-Up
As with all letter of recommendation requests, plan to follow up as the deadline gets closer. If you gave several weeks’ notice, send a follow-up email (replying to the original email request) about one week out, asking if they need any additional information. That serves as a subtle reminder
8. Express Your Gratitude
Once the letter is sent or in your hands, express your appreciation. Additionally, if the letter helped you achieve a goal, like landing an internship or spot in grad school, thank the professor again at that moment. Let them know that they helped you move forward and that you won’t forget what they did.
Three Examples of Asking for a Recommendation Letter
If you’re sending an email asking for a letter of recommendation or following up on a conversation, here are three examples that can serve as guides, each targeting a different recipient.
1. Example Email for a Letter of Recommendation from a Friend
First, I wanted to say thank you for being an amazing friend. You’ve always been there for me, and I genuinely value the relationship we’ve built over the years.
As you know, I am applying to college. Along with my application, I need to be able to provide a character reference. Since you know me so well, I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to write me a letter of recommendation by [date], as that would give me enough time to include it in my application.
If you have any questions about what to include, I am more than happy to answer them. Thank you again for considering my request.
2. Example Email for a Letter of Recommendation from a Coworker
I wanted to say that I genuinely admire your skill and expertise. It was a pleasure working with you at ABC Company, and I truly valued the relationship we were able to build, particularly while we were handling the electronic filing system transition project.
I’m currently working on forwarding my career and found an opportunity with XYZ Company that I feel is an exceptional fit. Based on our past experience as coworkers, I wanted to ask if you’d write me a letter of recommendation as I feel you are particularly well-equipped to discuss my relevant skills and experience.
I’ve included an overview of the position, as well as some highlights from our time together. I’d also be happy to answer any questions or discuss potential talking points further. As long as I receive the letter by [date], I can include it with my application.
Thank you again for considering my request. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, please reach out.
3. Example Email for a Letter of Recommendation from a Professor
Dear Professor [Name],
Thank you for being an exceptional teacher. I genuinely appreciate the care and attention you put into each class and feel that my experience with you not only ensured I fully understood the subject but also ignited my passion for the field.
Currently, I am preparing to apply to graduate schools. As part of my application, I need to provide a letter of recommendation from a past professor by [date], and I wanted to ask if you’d be able to write me a glowing recommendation.
I’ve included an overview of the graduate program, past examples of my work from your classes, as well as delivery instructions for the letter. If you require additional details, I am happy to provide them.
Thank you again for all you do for your students and for considering my request.
Putting It All Together
With all of the information above, you shouldn’t be wondering how to ask for a letter of recommendation any longer. Use the tips to initiate conversations and send emails, ensuring you approach it properly and can get what you need.
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