How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation: 4 Tips


Feb 28, 2023
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

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It’s hardly a secret that knowing the right people can open doors to opportunities. Employers ask for letters of recommendation because they don’t know you. They rely on others who do to testify to your character, experience and abilities and find it suspect if you hesitate to supply names of people who can vouch for you. 

However, asking others if they’re willing to speak to your positive nature can fill job seekers with stress. Please relax a little — requesting such information is an expected rite of passage, and most people are delighted to lend a hand. Here are four tips for asking for a letter of recommendation. 

The In-Person Approach

If possible, it’s best to request a letter of recommendation in person is best. Doing so highlights your proactive nature, even if you secretly shudder at the prospect of picking up the phone as an introvert. Furthermore, some employers and schools have specific requirements for what you must include in your letter, and connecting in person allows you to review these criteria — and give the other person plenty of time to apply their best writing skills. 

Be sure you know how to request someone’s time and rehearse before you ask. That way, you avoid the confusing schedule conflict loop that sometimes arises when you ask an open-ended, “when are you free?” Instead, name two specific times and one place — “Are you free to meet up this Tuesday or Thursday at 3:00 at X coffee shop?” 

Remember, you are asking for a favor — so please be polite. Furthermore, express gratitude and offer to return the favor if it seems appropriate. For example, your professor may never need a recommendation from you, but a work colleague may. 

Reaching Out Electronically 

“Okay,” you might be thinking, “The personal touch sounds nice, but I attend school virtually. The campus is across the country, and I’ve never met one of my professors in person.” In that case, an email request is perfectly acceptable. However, you should remember the following pointers when pitching your ask. 

1. A Simple, Personal Touch Is Best

You should be simple and direct with your approach. However, that doesn’t mean ignoring niceties. A simple email to a professor you have never met before might begin with the words “I’m reaching out to you because….” However, one to an old colleague you haven’t been able to reach by phone should be a bit more personal. “How have you been? It seems like forever since we both worked at X.” 

2. Provide Meaning and Context 

Remember, the person writing the letter must include as many highlights about your experience and skills as possible — so help them by refreshing their memory. You might reference projects you did particularly well or awards you won. 

3. Follow-up Right 

Once you send your email, wait a few days before reaching out to the individual. Usually, your follow-up email will trigger guilt, prompting them to at least reply and let you know when they can get your letter of recommendation to you. 

However, it’s also wise to have several “Plan Bs” in case your first request doesn’t receive a reply. Please don’t jump to the conclusion that the person you asked is intentionally ignoring you — things happen. That doesn’t fix your need, so know who you want to ask next if the first person you approach can’t assist you. 

Who Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

It’s as important to know who to ask as well as how to request a letter of recommendation. The following resources are appropriate for most applications. 

  • Professors and Teachers: You’ll get your first practice asking for letters of recommendation when you apply to college if you decide to go. You’ll ask your high school teachers for this documentation. Later, you can ask your professors, particularly those in your subject matter discipline. 
  • Former Employers: It’s an absolutely frustrating conundrum. It isn’t fair. However, some companies will only accept letters of recommendation from former bosses or supervisors — while simultaneously refusing to provide such documentation themselves. Your best bet? Wait until you have an offer before asking and have a backup plan if they decline. 
  • Former Colleagues: Part of your backup plan could be your former colleagues. After all, they’re more likely to be happy for you than your boss as you prepare to jump ship. Furthermore, they might have much more insight into your daily responsibilities. 
  • Volunteer Coordinators: Do you volunteer? Doing so shows that you care about your community, making you appealing to conscientious employers. Ask your coordinator for a letter. 
  • Professional Associates: Depending on your field, you may need to join professional associations. The colleagues you meet through various networking events can make excellent recommendations. 
  • Friends and Family: Use caution when using friends and family for recommendations. While they know your personality, some employers cast aspersions. However, some entry-level positions require character references, so don’t rule them out before learning the requirements. 

Should You Use a Letter of Recommendation Service? 

A quick Google search reveals numerous services where you can purchase professional letters of recommendation. There’s even a subreddit dedicated to people who need this documentation where you might be able to find free assistance. 

Should you use one of these services? Doing so might be your only choice if you have your heart set on a job that requires specific letters of recommendation, but your former employer’s policies prohibit them from providing you with one. However, keep the risks in mind. If your act is later discovered, you could lose your hard-earned gains and damage your professional reputation. 

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Asking for a letter of recommendation causes many job seekers undue stress. However, it’s a necessary rite of passage. 

Follow the tips above when learning how to ask for a letter of recommendation. Once you get the knack, you’ll collect a library of folks who testify to your skills and professionalism. 

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