How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

how to ask for a letter of recommendation

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There’s nothing like a letter of recommendation that can make or break an application.

Whether it’s for a college, grad school or simply a job application, a letter of recommendation can go a long way. It’s not appropriate to brag about our achievements, but a notable figure in our lives can do it.

However, we often struggle with asking for letters of recommendation.

The process necessarily includes some doubt as to what needs to be done. It seems like there are many takes on how to approach the important figures in applicants’ lives.

After all, their word may just be the deciding factor on whether an application is successful.

In this step-by-step guide, we’ll demonstrate how to ask for a letter of recommendation and make sure it’s the right one.

Let’s take a look!


how to ask for a letter of recommendation

Step 1. Selecting the right people

An impersonal letter of recommendation doesn’t go as far as a highly-personalized one.

Getting a few sentences on being an exemplary worker or student from a person or professor who’s hardly spoken to us more than a few times is almost meaningless.

This is why it’s important to select the right people for writing the letter of recommendation.

Preferably, they’ll be people who we’ve extensively communicated with, and who have taken notice of our achievements.

This will also make it much easier to get a favorable response to our query, instead of coming across as asking too much of someone we’ve ignored.

If we’re asking because of a job application, the boss is a good choice only if we worked in a small business where we’ve often worked with them. Otherwise, the team head is a much better choice.

When it comes to college and grad school applications, the best route is selecting a professor whose classes we’ve extensively participated in.

Step 2. How to ask for a letter of recommendation

If possible, we should ask in person first. It leaves a good impression and shows how serious we are. It’s even better to explain to the person why we’re asking them, and not someone else.

If that’s not a possibility, an email works well.

The body of the email asking for a letter of recommendation should be structured in four parts:

1. Explaining the relevance

Firstly, it’s important to explain why we’re contacting this person.

Have we enjoyed working with them or participating in their classes? Compliments are a good way to start the email with, as well.

Otherwise, it may seem as though we’re just randomly asking for recommendations and if we want our recommendation to be personalized, our email should be personalized as well.

2. Making the request

After a strong introduction, making the request should be as simple as explaining what the letter of recommendation is for, and what we’re hoping this person will highlight.

For example, a good way to phrase it would be: “I’m really proud of the progress you’ve noticed I made this year, and I would appreciate it if you could put an emphasis on that in your letter.”

3. Logistics

Depending on the type of application we’re making, we should explain all the related logistics:

  • Deadline
  • Format
  • Areas to cover (if defined by the application guidelines)
  • Other submission-related instructions

4. Optional: preparing a summary document

Depending on the type of application and the relationship between us and the person we’re hoping will provide us with the letter of recommendation, we can refresh their memory with a summary document.

In the summary, we should outline our achievements – especially achievements they’ve taken part in, or actively observed.

This can also serve as a way to highlight the achievements we’re especially proud of, and believe would be beneficial if mentioned in the letter.

If we’ve had any notable achievements outside of the field of join cooperation, we can also state them in the summary document.

For example, a psychology bachelor who went on to intern with a therapist could state that in the summary when asking their college professor for a recommendation.

Finally, the email shouldn’t be sent as a demand.

The person we want to endorse us should be given ample time to process our request.

Step 3. Following up

While it seems like sending a request for a letter of recommendation just takes one email, that may not necessarily be the case.

We should be prepared for the back and forth between us and the endorser.

They may require additional materials and guidance, especially if we’re close to them. For example, it’s not uncommon for them to ask for the so-called “brag sheet.”

It’s a document outlining the things we’d like them to say about us, and areas to pay special attention to when writing the letter of recommendation.

Sometimes, they’ll also require additional materials (depending on the complexity of our applications) such as:

  • Documents about the position we’re applying for (e.g. scholarship information, job description)
  • Copy of resume and/or our application
  • Transcripts

Step 4. Saying thank you

When we’re received the letter of recommendation (or if it has to be submitted directly, when we’ve been told that it was submitted), we should write another email or call to thank the endorser.

If the application was successful, we should also arrange a meeting with them to thank them in person.

In general, it’s always good to ask and thank for favors such as these in person, as it adds another layer of appreciation.

What if they don’t want to write a letter of recommendation?

This can happen sometimes, especially if we chose the wrong person (who may have impressive credentials).

It’s nothing to worry about, but that’s one of the reasons why we should always keep in touch with people who have played a significant role in our (professional and academic) lives.

Especially if we’re expecting them to write us a letter of recommendation one day.

If that happens, we should have a list of other people we can ask to endorse us.  

And when we’ve gotten that job or that scholarship, we should always say where they can find us. After all, they’ve helped us.

The least we can do is be there when they need us.

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