Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

Whether you're applying to graduate school, or trying to find a new job, it's often necessary to obtain a letter of recommendation.  The way someone asks for a letter is important.  It can influence both the quality of the written letter, and the likelihood a coworker, mentor, or former professor agrees to help

In this article, we're going to explain how to ask for a letter of recommendation.  We'll start with a process that outlines how to go about finding qualified individuals.  Next, we'll explain how to effectively ask people to write letters.  Then we'll progress through each step in the process, providing examples along the way.

Choosing Individuals to Write Letters

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While many of your friends might be willing to write a letter of recommendation, those letters won't carry much weight with the reader.  Effective letters have to be both well-written and come from qualified individuals.  The criteria for selecting an individual should include the following three elements:

  • Experience:  In an academic setting, this would include professors that taught you at least two classes, or one class involving a smaller lecture environment.  In a work setting, the ideal candidate would have worked alongside you for at least two years.
  • Relationship:  It's important to build strong relationships both at work and school.  Contributing to classroom discussions, volunteering in class, all help to build rapport with professors.  The everyday interactions with coworkers and peers make it easier to foster strong relationships on the job.
  • Articulate:  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure the individual communicates well.  The letter needs to be persuasive and demonstrate genuine enthusiasm about your future prospects.

To summarize the above, the best person to write a letter of recommendation is one that:

  • Has observed you at work, or in the classroom setting, and can write about specific observations of work ethic, character, and leadership style.
  • Is comfortable writing the letter because they have insights into your values, and understand your personal goals and aspirations.
  • Can express in written words why you deserve to gain acceptance into a graduate program or a job interview.

Asking Individuals to Help

The best people to write letters on your behalf will be both eager to help and flattered.  If there is a less than enthusiastic reaction to a request for help, then you're not asking the right person.  How you ask a person to write a letter is a matter of personal comfort.  With that in mind, it is easier for someone to say "no thanks" in less personal settings.  The three most common approaches, in order of effectiveness are:Letter of Recommendation

  • Face-to-Face Meeting:  It's very difficult for people to say "no" if you're standing in front of them.  Meetings are a very effective means of gaining support, but they can also be seen as "pressuring" people into agreement.
  • Telephone Calls:  Picking up the phone and calling someone is less formal than a meeting, and more personal than an email.  You're not putting anyone "on the spot" while at the same time making sure they receive the request.
  • Emails:  While emails make it easier to organize thoughts and stay on point, it's easier for the recipient to ignore the email or even pretend it was never received; especially if they're busy.

Discussing Qualifications

Once you've decided how to communicate, it's time to outline what you're going to say in that communication.  An effective communication will have four parts:

Introduction:  Reference Qualifications

It's important to start at the beginning; this means a quick explanation of the reference's qualifications is needed.  Earlier we identified three elements of the selection process:  experience, relationship and ability to communicate.  This discussion should be both fact-based as well as flattering to the potential reference.  The introductory statement might take the following form:

"I'm applying [for a job at 3M Company, to a graduate program at Penn State University] because I think this is a great developmental opportunity.  I value your thoughts on my abilities and I've enjoyed [working with you over the last two years on the project, your lectures in class].  I believe our interactions, and your observations of my behaviors and work ethic, make you uniquely qualified to provide a written letter of recommendation on my behalf."

Notice the above introduction does not ask the reference if they would write a letter, it explains how you value their opinion and feel they are uniquely qualified to help.

Outline of Experience

Next, it's time to remind the reference that you're qualified for the job or graduate program.  This needs to be a well-written list of what you would like the reference to include in their letter of recommendation.  The outline of past experiences might look like the following:

"Some of the work we did together that fits well with this [new job, graduate program] includes:

  • Developed a comprehensive financial business case model that resulted in the rollout of a new healthcare product.
  • Participation in the classroom setting, as well as volunteering to coordinate the field visits demonstrates my leadership capabilities and my attention to details.
  • Demonstrated the clear ability to learn new software tools, including SAP's FI/CA module, where I tailored the application to our accounts receivable and customer collections process.
  • Proved my abilities to think "out of the box" when I developed a new approach to calibrating the spectrophotometer in our chemistry laboratory."

Give Them an Out

As mentioned earlier, a reference needs to be enthusiastic about writing the letter.  Therefore, it's important to make sure it's possible for someone that's not enthusiastic to exit gracefully.  You'll also want to make sure they can commit to the allowed timeline and know where to send the letter.  For example, this can be accomplished in the following way:

"Let me know if you do not feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation.  If you are willing to help, feel free to mention some of the above items.  I've tried to outline what I feel are the competencies that align with the expectations of the [program, job].


The letter needs to be sent to the following address [name of company or graduate program, attention: name of contact, mailing address].  The letter of recommendation needs to be received before the end of December."

Express Appreciation

Finally, tell your coworker or professor how much you appreciated their help over the years, even if they decide not to write the letter.  While this display of appreciation should certainly be sincere, it's also one last chance to flatter them into helping out.  For example:

"I'd like to thank you in advance for your time and consideration.  I really enjoyed [working, learning] alongside you over the last two [years, semesters].  These are the habits, experiences and lessons that will last a lifetime."

Follow Up

If you don't hear back, positively or negatively, then you'll need to follow up on the first communication.  Ideally, this would be by telephone or a face-to-face meeting.  If the original request was by email, the follow up needs to be more personal.  As mentioned earlier, it's more difficult to say "no" over the phone or in person.

The important point to remember here is not to react negatively if the person decides to pass on the opportunity to write the letter of recommendation.  It's okay to express disappointment, but always end on a high note.  Never pressure anyone into telling you why they didn't help out.  For example:

"I'll admit that I'm a little disappointed.  But I want you to know that I do understand and I'll always value the time that we spent together.  Thanks again for giving this some thought."


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