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How to write a request letter of recommendation

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How to write a request letter of recommendation
January 01, 2019 Anniversary Wishes 1 comment

Choosing who you will ask to write your recommendation letters is very important, and if you are fortunate enough to have several potential recommenders.

Table of Contents

  1. Template Library 1: Student, College, and Teacher Samples
  2. Template Library 2: Employment Related Samples
  3. What is a Letter of Recommendation?
  4. Format – Content Sections, Font, and Margins
  5. Important Steps Before Writing
  6. How to Write a Letter of Recommendation in 9 Steps
  7. Characteristics of a Strong Letter
  8. How to Ask For One
  9. When to Reject a Request

1. Letter of Recommendation Template Library 1: Student, College, and Teacher Samples

Click Here to View All Student and Teacher Templates

2. Letter of Recommendation Sample Library 2: Employment Templates

Click Here to View All Employment Related Templates

3. What is a Letter of Recommendation?

A letter of recommendation (or reference letter) is a document designed to add extra weight and merit to a job or college application. They are usually written by a supervisor, colleague, teacher, or friend.

There are various different types of recommendation letters, but the three main ones are those for employment, for university applications, and character references.

Who Needs Letters of Recommendation? Why Do They Need Them?

Below we’ve outlined all the various types of people and reasons a person might require one, as well as who to ask for one.

#1. Students Applying for University, Grad School, or Scholarships

Almost all universities and scholarship programs require at least two recommendation letters as part of the application process. These reference letters should ideally be written by previous teachers or professors who are familiar with your academic achievements and abilities.

Students need references because admissions officers and scholarship organizations want to get a better understanding of who they are as a person. Recommendation letters help to shed light on the “full package” that is difficult to fully convey in a resume and personal essay.

For more details on who you should ask to write your recommendation, check out our detailed guide on how to ask for one.

It is also acceptable to have your letter written by a coach, guidance counselor, or academic adviser who can speak to your strengths.

#2. People Applying for Jobs That Require Strong References

For most job applications, a well-written resume and cover letter or letter of interest are more than sufficient. However, certain industries or companies may require a letter of recommendation in addition to these basic essentials. Teachers and physician assistants are two such examples of jobs that often need a written reference as part of the application.

Generally speaking, the most convincing reference letters will be those written by a supervisor. In cases where this is impossible (or undesirable), a recommendation from a coworker who is intimately familiar with your work is also acceptable.

#3. People Who Want to Beef Up Their Job Application

If you feel as though your resume and cover letter aren’t particularly strong, a letter of recommendation can help you land a job when it otherwise might be impossible.

A character reference from a friend, teacher, or family member can make all the difference when it comes to job hunting.

This usually occurs when you have little or no work experience. In situations like these, a character reference from a friend, teacher, or family member can make all the difference when it comes to job hunting.

On the other hand, if you’re applying for a particularly competitive job, a strong reference from a previous employer can turn the tide and help you stand out from the crowd.

4. Format — Content & Page Layout (Font, Margins)

Now that we know what a recommendation letter is and who needs one, let’s go through exactly how to structure the content of your letter, as well as the best page formatting and fonts to create a professional look.

Content Format Guide: 7 Basic Sections

No matter who it’s for, including these seven basic parts in your letter will ensure it hits every point needed to write a strong and compelling letter of recommendation.

Part 1. Contact Information and Letterhead

Ideally speaking, your own name, address, and contact information should go in a letterhead at the top of the page. If you don’t have a letterhead, place this information above the date on the top-left side of the page.

Otherwise, the first thing on the top-right side of the page should be the current date, followed by the addressee’s name, title, company or school name, and then address.

Part 2. Salutation

As with any letter, the first line should address the person or body of people you are writing to by name and title. Avoid vague salutations such as “To Whom It May Concern:” unless there are no other options available to you.

Check out the first step of our letter of recommendation writing guide for a more detailed explanation of how to craft the perfection salutation.

Part 3. Introduction: How you know the applicant

Start by expressing your sincere recommendation of the applicant, explain who you are and your relationship with the person you are recommending, including how long you have known them.

Part 4. The Academic, Personal, or Professional Achievements of the Applicant

The second paragraph outlines the relevant academic or professional strengths of the applicant. Include one to two specific and detailed examples that demonstrate the applicant truly does possess these strengths.

Part 5. Personal Traits and Characteristics

The third paragraph is all about personality. Include details of the applicants positive personality traits and examples that clearly showcase them.

Part 6. Explanation of Applicant’s Departure [Optional]

This optional section is only used when writing letters of recommendation for employment. It should also only be included in cases when the applicant’s reason for leaving their previous or current company is either neutral or positive. Such as relocating for family reasons, or outgrowing the opportunities at the company.

Part 7. Conclusion: Call-to-action

Reiterate your wholehearted recommendation of the applicant and encourage the reader to contact you with any questions they may have.

Page Format Guide: 5 Basic Rules

While the content of your letter is the most important element, the appearance of the page still requires some consideration. The alignment, font size and style, and margins can all impact the impression you give the reader.

The following simple guidelines will ensure your recommendation letter looks professional:

  1. Don’t exceed one page in length unless the extra paragraphs and details you are including legitimately strengthen your recommendation. That being said, anything over two pages is definitely too much.
  2. Use a 12-point font to maximize readability and economical use of space. Using an 11-point font in order to maintain a one-page length is acceptable but should be avoided when possible. Anything lower than 11 points is too small.
  3. Stick to basic font stylessuch as Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, and Garamond. Avoid any overly stylistic fonts that could affect readability.
  4. 1”–1½” is the sweet spot for margins. You could arguably go slightly over or under these limits to fit everything onto one page, but it’s best to avoid anything too excessive.
  5. Maintain a left alignmentthroughout the entire page to ensure an organized appearance. 

For more specific details on how to format a letter of recommendation, check out our comprehensive business letter format guide.

5. Three Important Steps Before You Begin Writing

Before you stretch your typing fingers, there are a couple of things you must do to ensure your reference letter is as compelling as possible.

Step 1:Ask the Applicant for Information

Ask the applicant for a copy of their resume, cover letter, personal essay, or any other such documents they are submitting as part of their application. Read through them thoroughly and avoid repeating any of the information mentioned unless it is particularly important.

Ask the applicant if there are any particular points or examples they’d like you to mention.

It’s also a good idea to ask the applicant if there are any particular points or examples they’d like you to mention.

Step 2:Conduct Your Own Research

Do some research on the company, university, or scholarship the applicant is targeting, and customize your letter based on their requirements. If you’re writing a letter for a job application, reading through the job description is a great way to get an idea of the specifics you should emphasize.

Step 3:Think About the Type of Letter You are Writing

Depending on the type of recommendation letter you are writing, the tone and contents will differ. If you’re a manager writing for an employee, the tone will be much more formal and contain a lot of detail regarding an applicant’s professional achievements.

On the other end of the spectrum, a character reference from a friend will be written in a more casual tone and focus more on an individual’s personal strengths and characteristics.

If you’re pressed for time, ask the applicant to do all the research for you and then provide a summary of all the important information.

6. How to Write a Compelling Recommendation Letter — 9 Step Guide

Now that we’ve gotten all the little nitty-gritty details out of the way, it’s time to put pen to paper. Following these steps will help you create a convincing letter of recommendation that is sure to be an invaluable part of any application.

Step 1: A Polite and Personable Salutation

The way you greet someone when meeting them for the first time has a huge impact on their first impression of you. The way you address someone in a letter is no different. As such, it’s important to use a polite and personable salutation to start your letter off strong.

A proper salutation should be structured as follows:

Dear+ Title+ Name of Recipient

The title will vary depending on the individual you are writing to. For example, if you are addressing a hiring manager, you would use a general title such as Mr., Mrs., or Ms.

Example #1:

Dear + Mr. /Mrs. /Ms. + Hiring Manager’s Last Name

On the other hand, if you were writing to a Professor or someone with a Phd, you should use their professional title such as Dr. or Professor.

Example #2:

Dear+ Professor+ Professor’s Last Name

Ideally the applicant requesting the letter should provide you with the name of the person who the letter should be addressed to. If not, a bit of quick research on linkedin, or the company/university website should yield some results.

What Should I Do if I Don’t Know the Name of the Recipient?

When you don’t know the name of the recipient, you should still make your salutation as personable as possible. This means avoiding weak openings that make no attempt to directly address the reader.

Even if you don’t know their nameyou should never use “To Whom it May Concern” when addressing the recipient.

Here’s What You Should Do Instead:

Dear+ Titleof Recipient

For example, if you are addressing a university’s dean of admissions whose name you don’t know, write Dear Dean of Admissions. Whereas if you are writing to the hiring manager of a company, write Dear Hiring Manager.

How Should I Address a Letter to a Body of People or an Organization?

When addressing a body of people such as an admissions committee or board of directors you should follow the same principles as those outlined above. The only difference is that the title of the recipient should be replaced by the name of the group or organization.

Here is the exact formula:

Dear+ Name of Group or Organization

The following examples give you a better idea:

  • DearAdmissions Committee
  • DearBoard of Directors
  • DearRhodes Trust

Step 2: Start Your Introduction With a Punch

The first sentence of your recommendation is arguably the most important because it sets the tone for the entire letter. The best openers are those that immediately express the heartfelt and enthusiastic recommendation of the applicant.

Here are some useful phrases you can use to write a strong first sentence:

  • It’s my pleasure to recommend…
  • It’s my pleasure and honor to…
  • I couldn’t be more pleased to…
  • I have absolutely no reservations about recommending…
  • I wholeheartedly recommend…

In comparison, a generic sentence that lacks enthusiasm such as “I am writing with regards to the recommendation for…” is both boring and weak.

Step 3: Establish Your Relationship

The remainder of your introductory paragraph should be devoted to describing who you are and your relationship with the applicant. This is an essential step because it establishes the relevance of your letter.

If you have known the applicant for a good length of time — and are in a good position to evaluate their strengths — then the potency of your letter multiplies. When establishing your relationship, you should include the following points:

  • Your position and company/school
  • The capacity in which you know the applicant
  • How long you have known the applicant

By including these details in the very beginning of your letter, the reader understands the foundation of the relationship that your words are coming from. This context makes everything you say afterwards much more powerful.

Including some anecdotes about your relationship will help strengthen this important foundation.

Step 4: Give Words of Praise

Finish your introduction with a sentence or two highlighting some of the applicant’s key strengths or personality traits.

The following examples will give you an idea of how you should write yours:

  • During that time, I watched Zach grow into an exceptional individual who excels in both his academic and personal pursuits.
  • Gregory was always an outstanding member of our team, and I have always been impressed by his professionalism and admirable personal qualities.

Don’t worry about going into detail. The purpose of these sentences is to round out the first paragraph, while simultaneously serving as a sneak peak of what’s to come in the body of your letter.

Step 5: Showcase the Applicant’s Professional/Academic Strengths

Your first body paragraph should start by mentioning 2–3 of the applicant’s specific skills, talents, or experiences that are relevant to their target job position or college program.

It is essential that these points are then followed up with detailed and descriptive examples of the applicant’s accomplishments that prove the aforementioned abilities.

Take a look at the difference between the following two examples from a reference letter written for a project manager:

No details:

  • Zach is great at managing projects.

Specific and detailed:

  • Zach’s in-depth knowledge of Scrum Methodologies helped increase the amount of projects completed on-time and within budget by 23%

Not only is the second example far more compelling, but it also showcases the professional accomplishment the applicant has that would benefit her target job. When the reader sees these kinds of examples, they think to themselves, “This is the kind of performance I need at my company.

Whenever possible, include interesting anecdotes about the applicant that demonstrate the strengths and abilities you described. This will create a more personable tone that makes the reader feel as though they are getting to know the applicant — one of the key aspects of a strong recommendation letter.

Make sure the achievements you mention are ones that you personally witnessed. Otherwise, they will carry far less weight for the reader.

Step 6: Highlight the Applicant’s Best Personal Qualities

The next body paragraph should focus on 2–3 of the applicant’s positive personality traits and characteristics — particularly those that would be beneficial or desired by their target company or school.

One of the chief reasons universities and certain companies request letters of recommendation is because they want to get a more holistic understanding of the applicant as a person. Thus, only including their academic or professional achievements is not enough to create a persuasive letter.

Much like with the previous step, include relevant and specific examples or anecdotes to backup your claims. Let’s take a look at some examples:

No Details:

  • Joyce is a selfless and compassionate person.

Specific and Detailed:

  • As a member of habitat for humanity, Joyce demonstrated her compassion and selfless nature by providing invaluable tutelage and mentorship to countless underprivileged children.

In case you’re having trouble thinking of compelling ways to describe an applicant’s personality, we’ve created a table containing some of the best personal qualities to include in a letter of recommendation:

AdaptabilityEnergyHonestyResourceful
CompassionEnthusiasmIntegrityResponsible
CharismaFriendlinessIntelligenceTrustworthy
DeterminationGenerosityLeadershipVibrant

Just be sure that you prove that the applicant possesses the personal qualities you mention with specific and detailed examples.

Step 7: Explain Why the Applicant is Leaving [Optional Paragraph for Job References]

This paragraph is only relevant if you’re writing a letter of recommendation for employment purposes. That being said, you should only include this section if the reason the applicant is leaving your current company is either neutral or positive.

The following are a few examples of the types of reasons that would be acceptable:

  • Relocating for family reasons
  • Outgrowing opportunities available at current company
  • Medical reasons
  • Skillset would be put to better use at another company

After reading through a letter describing how amazing an applicant is, it is quite normal for a hiring manager to think to themselves, “If this candidate is so great, why are they no longer at the company?” By including the reason for an applicant’s departure, it helps to assuage some of these doubts.

If you’re unsure whether or not the reason might be seen in a negative light, then it’s safer to exclude this section altogether.

However, if you’re unsure whether or not the reason might be seen in a negative light, then it’s safer to exclude this section altogether.

Step 8: Encourage the Reader to Accept the Applicant

Begin the concluding paragraph by reiterating your complete, unreserved, and enthusiastic recommendation of the applicant. Follow this up by emphasizing the value of the applicant as an asset.

Use strong, authoritative, and confident language when writing this sentence. Take a look at the following examples:

  • I am confident that Jon will make an outstanding member of your university’s community.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that Allison would quickly become an invaluable asset for your team.
  • It is my strong opinion that Matthew would be a tremendous addition to the University of Virginia’s graduate program in Theoretical Physics.

Finally, conclude by encouraging the reader to contact you if they have any questions about the applicant.

Step 9: Politely Sign-off

Your letter closing should be formal and polite. Sincerely, Regards, and Best regards are all great examples. Sincerely is widely considered to be the best sign-off because not only is it undeniably polite, it also carries a warm, friendly tone. In cases where the closing is more than one word, only the first letter of the first word should be capitalized.

Ready to get started? Save yourself some time and effort by downloading and customizing one of our free templates or samples:

Templates and Samples for Students & Teachers

Templates and Samples for Employment & Jobs

7. The Six Characteristics of a Strong Recommendation

Regardless of what kind of content you end up including, keeping these six characteristics in mind throughout the writing process will help take your recommendation to the next level.

#1. It Is Personable:

Your letter should sound like it was written by a real person. The chief reason why colleges and employers request reference letters is because they want to get an idea how an applicant’s qualifications and personal qualities are perceived by another person.

#2. It Comes from a Credible Source:

If your mom writes you a college recommendation letter outlying how you are such a good, nice boy” it is unlikely to be very convincing to the admissions board. It needs to come from an authoritative source and be written in a strong, confident tone.

#3. It Uses Supportive, Positive, and Enthusiastic Language:

A powerful recommendation needs to be enthusiastic and sincere. If the reader feels like you don’t wholeheartedly recommend the applicant, your letter will be weak and unconvincing.

When describing the applicant’s strengths, enhance them with adjectives such as “exceptional,” “outstanding,” and “superb.”

Using adverbs such as “sincerely” and “wholeheartedly” will inject some passion into your words. When describing the applicant’s strengths, enhance them with adjectives such as “exceptional,” “outstanding,” and “superb.”

#4. It is Specific and Detailed:

You should avoid empty cliches such as, “Mollie is the best student/employee I’ve ever had.” Everything you say needs to be specific and backed up by evidence. If Jim really was the best student you ever had, then you need to describe exactly how and why that was the case.

#5. It Contains a Narrative:

By the end of the letter the reader should feel like they have gotten to know both you and the applicant better. Your relationship with the applicant, and your description of their strengths, should feel like a story. Also be sure to include anecdotes demonstrating the applicant’s abilities and traits whenever possible.

#6. It Is Relevant to the Applicant’s Goals:

A strong recommendation should focus on the strength’s an applicant possess that are relevant to their pursuits. For example, in the case of a student applying to a mechanical engineering department, avoid writing about their exceptional literary masterworks and focus on their achievements in science.

8. How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Asking for a recommendation letter can seem like a daunting task, especially when you’re not sure whether or not the person will accept. This guide will show you exactly how to properly ask for a reference letter, as well as who and when to ask.

If you’ve been asked to write a recommendation and you’re not sure whether or not you should accept, go to the next section for details on exactly when and how to reject a request.

When Should I Ask for One?

You should only ask for letters of recommendation when an application specifically calls for one, or when you believe your application would be weak without one.

The following are examples of when a reference letter would be required or useful:

  • Applying for University
  • Applying for Graduate School
  • Applying for a Scholarship
  • Applying for a job that request ones
  • Applying for an entry-level job with little or no work experience
  • Applying for a job as a teacher
  • Applying to work at a volunteer organization

Who should I ask?

Generally speaking, you should ask someone you have a solid relationship with who can also accurately speak to your strengths from a position of authority. That being said, the best person to ask for a recommendation will depend on the type of application you are making.

Tips on who to ask if I’m a…

a. Student Applying to College or Scholarship:

Pick a teacher who has taught you for a long period of time and whose classes you performed particularly well in. If you are applying for a specific major, consider asking a teacher who taught you a subject related to your target field.

b. Student Applying to Grad School:

Ask a professor with whom you have had extensive interaction, such as one from a course which involved a lot of discussion. Even if you performed exceptionally well in a certain professor’s course, if there were 300 people in the class they would be unable to write an effective letter for you.

If you wrote a thesis paper as an undergrad, your adviser is likely the professor most well-equipped to write your recommendation.

c. Teacher Applying for a Job at a New School:

Ideally, you should ask the principal of your previous school because they can write you a letter from a position of authority. However, if you’d rather not ask the principal or feel they don’t know you well enough, asking the head of your department is a great alternative.

d. Recent Grad Applying for a Teaching Job:

If you specifically studied to become a teacher in college, then you will have already taught some courses under the guidance of a professor or two. One of these professors is by far the best candidate to ask to write your recommendation.

e. Applying to a Job with Little or No Work Experience:

Ask a friend or extended family member to write a character reference for you. A reference from a direct family member will be seen as “too close to home” and will not be taken seriously by any potential employer.

f. Applying to a Job with Experience:

The ideal writer would be someone who has directly supervised your work such as a manager. In cases where asking your manager is not ideal, a colleague who you have worked with closely is also acceptable.

If you’re still not sure who to ask, use the following formula: pick the person in the highest possible position with whom you have the strongest relationship.

How Should I Ask? (6 Expert Tips for Proper Etiquette)

In many cases, how you ask for a letter of recommendation can be the difference between a person saying yes or no. These six tips for proper etiquette will help you ask in a way that makes it hard to decline.

#1. Ask in Person:

Whenever possible, always ask for a recommendation in person. The person you ask will appreciate that you took the time to make a personal, face-to-face appeal.

#2. Explain Your Situation:

Don’t jump straight into asking for a reference. Start by explaining exactly what you are applying for so that they understand why you are asking in the first place.

#3. Use Polite Language:

Use indirect turns of phrase to ensure your tone is as polite as possible when asking someone for a recommendation, even if you know the person very well.

Don’t say: “Hey can you write me a recommendation letter?

Do Say: “I was wondering if it might at all be possible for you to write me a letter of recommendation.

In almost all cases, politeness is the most important factor in convincing someone to accept your request.

This is by far the most important tip, so pay extra attention to it. In almost all cases, politeness is the most important factor in convincing someone to accept your request.

#4. Give Them an Excuse to Say No:

In case they are unwilling or unable to write your letter, always follow up your request with a statement that allows them to easily decline. Don’t put them in an awkward position where they have to directly refuse.

Example: “If you’re too busy with other tasks to write it, I perfectly understand and please don’t hesitate to decline.

#5. Emphasize Why You’re Asking Them:

Explain why you chose to ask for a recommendation from them. Many times this will help convince them to accept your request even if they are busy.

Example:I understand that you might not have time, but since you have taught me for 2 years and are familiar with my work, I believe that no one is more qualified to write my recommendation than you.”

#6. Express Your Gratitude:

Tell them how appreciative you would be if they would take the time to write your letter. However, don’t give them the impression that you expect them to accept (as outlined in tip 4).

Example: I would really appreciate it if you were able to write a letter of recommendation for me, if you are unable to do so, however, I completely understand and please don’t worry about it.”

In the end, as long as you ask with a polite and sincere attitude, most people will be more than happy to write a recommendation for you.

How to Ask via Email (with Template)

If you are in a situation where you can’t ask for a recommendation in person, write a request via email. Simply follow the same guidelines outlined in the section above and your request will be golden.

If you’re still unsure of yourself however, we’ve created a professional template for writing a letter of recommendation email request below. Simply copy and paste the template and then fill in your own details.

Subject Line: Request for Letter of Recommendation

Dear [Title + Name of Person You are Asking]

First of all thank you for taking the time to read this email and I hope that this request does not cause you any inconvenience.

I am applying for [university program/job position] at [target school/company] and was wondering if it would at all be possible for you to write a letter of recommendation for me.

As my [relation with requestee], I sincerely feel that no one else is more suited to writing me a recommendation and I would truly appreciate any kind words you might be willing to say on my behalf.

That being said, I know that you are extremely busy and if you are unable to find the time to write a letter I would completely understand.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

What Information Should I Provide to the Person Writing My Letter?

Once your writer has accepted your request, you need to provide them with as much useful information as possible. This will not only make things more convenient for your writer, but also ensure that they write you the best recommendation possible.

Here’s a list of some of the info you should provide:

  • Your resume & cover letter
  • Your personal statement (if you’re a student)
  • The name of your target university or company
  • A link to the description of your target job or program
  • Personal strengths or characteristics you’d like them to focus on
  • Specific achievements you’d like them to mention

9. When and How to Reject a Request for a Recommendation Letter

When:

Of course, there are always times when you may be exceptionally busy and finding the time to write a letter can be difficult. In these situations accepting or rejecting a letter is completely up to you.

There are two situations in which you definitely should reject a request for a reference letter.

Other than that, there are two situations in which you definitely should reject a request for a reference letter.

#1. You don’t know enough about the applicant to write them a strong recommendation.

Even if you are aware that an applicant has exceptional abilities and personal qualities, you may not be familiar enough with the specifics of their accomplishments to write a proper letter.

#2. You know a lot about the applicant but can’t think of enough positive things to say.

It sounds harsh but there are times when an applicant’s performance at your company or school has simply not been ideal. If you’re struggling to come up with a way to portray them in a positive light, it’s better to decline the request and let someone who is more familiar with their strengths write their recommendation.

How:

Of course, if you want to just flat out reject a request, that is completely acceptable. However, if you’d like to soften the blow a bit, coming up with an excuse is remarkably easy.

Simply apologize to the student and tell them that you are too busy, and feel as though you lack the time required to write them the letter they deserve.

Simply apologize to the student and tell them that you are too busy, and feel as though you lack the time required to write them the letter they deserve.

Now that you know everything there is to know about recommendation letters, feel free to check out our professional templates and samples. Our experts have created a comprehensive library of examples for both studentsand employment.

If you need more inspiration for writing your letter, we also have extensive guides for writing cover letters, business letters, and even letters of resignation.

Written by Matthew Kerr

Matthew Kerr is a career adviser at Resume Genius, where he reinvigorates client's careers and saves resumes from the trash heap. His career expertise has been quoted on countless publications across the web, including... more

“They are definitely not the first person to ask and definitely not the last. I get asked to write recommendation letters for current students, former students, and.

Letters of Recommendation

how to write a request letter of recommendation

College is a wonderful time, but it doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later, you have to start looking toward your future beyond college.

For many students, this means getting a job (but not just any job). For others, it may mean going on to graduate school or volunteering. And even while you’re still a student, you’ll need recommendations for internships, study abroad, or even just a summer job.

Whatever path you choose, odds are you’re going to need a letter of recommendation. At the very least, you’ll probably need to provide a reference.

Sounds easy enough, right? It is, but based on my conversations with professors over the years, many students don’t know how to ask for letters of recommendation. Or they think they do, but go about it the wrong way.

Like so many topics we discuss on College Info Geek, asking for letters of recommendation is one of those valuable topics that never made it into the curriculum when we were growing up.

So today I’ll draw on conversations with professors and my own experience asking for all kinds of recommendation letters and references to help you get a winning letter for any purpose.

Let’s do it!

Essential Background Work

Before we begin, I should mention some important prerequisites for asking a professor, coach, supervisor, or family friend for a letter of recommendation or reference.

To have any hope of getting a quality recommendation letter, you need to ensure the following are true:

1. You actually know the person you’re asking

The point of a letter of recommendation is to give your prospective employer (or grad school, or whoever) an additional perspective on who you are and what you’re like to work with. So don’t ask a professor that you’ve only had for the past 3 weeks or a boss at a campus job you just started.

2. You have a positive history with the person you’re asking.

This should go without saying, but don’t ask a professor whose class you barely passed. This doesn’t mean you should only ask professors for classes you got an A in. If you got a B but had a strong work ethic, that can say more than a class where you got an easy A.

3. The person is relevant to the recommendation.

If you’re applying to grad school in physics, then a recommendation from your English 101 professor may not be the best choice.

Make sure that the person from whom you’re requesting the recommendation has worked with you in a capacity relevant to the job, internship, volunteer program, or whatever it might be that you’re applying for.

In many cases, the recommender’s qualifications aren’t super important. But they can be in some cases. Just use common sense.

Assuming all the above are true, it’s time to move on to the next section: asking for the recommendation. 

The 3 W’s of Recommendation Letters

As with so many things, simply having some kind of process to follow will make asking for letters of recommendation less intimidating and more effective. As I see it, there are three questions you must ask yourself before requesting a letter of recommendation.

Write down the answers to each of these questions as you go along.

1. What’s It For?

Seems obvious enough (to you), but my advisor told me so many stories of recommendation requests whose purpose was unclear. Knowing the purpose of the recommendation is essential, as it will dictate what aspects of their experience with you they should discuss in the letter. Because what’s relevant to a grad school application is not the same as what’s relevant to the Peace Corps.

If you don’t give enough information, than at best you’ll force them to write a generic, vague recommendation that won’t give you the best chance at getting the position you seek. At worst, they may refuse to write the recommendation at all, since without sufficient information it would be a waste of both their time and yours.

Action Step: Write one sentence explaining what this recommendation letter is for. If you can’t explain it in one sentence, it’s unlikely your professor will be able to understand it.

2. Who Will Read It?

This goes along with the above, but you should tell the person recommending you who will be reading your application. This is helpful for practical details such as the salutation of the letter (“Dear Hogwarts Admission Committee” or “Dear Planet Express”).

But knowing the letter’s audience also helps the recommender choose the appropriate style and tone of their letter. For instance, a letter to the hiring manager of a startup with beanbag chairs and kombucha on tap should sound different than one to an admissions officer of an Ivy League graduate program. The recommender can only make this distinction if they know who will read the letter.

3. When Is It Due?

If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: don’t ask for a recommendation at the last minute. This is so bad for so many reasons:

  • It’s impolite and unprofessional.
  • It makes it unlikely the recommender will be able to write and submit the letter on time.
  • Even if they do manage to submit it before the deadline, it will be of lower quality than a letter they had ample time to write.
  • It makes everyone’s life more stressful, yours included.

Remember: the person writing you a recommendation is doing you a big favor. The more time you give them to write the letter, the more likely they are to write it and the better it will be. If you need a letter of recommendation, you should give a minimum of one month’s notice. If you can give more time, then great.

Of course, don’t take this to its extreme. Tell someone you need a letter in six months and they’re likely to forget about it. Giving 4-6 weeks of notice strikes the right balance between respecting their time and ensuring they’ll remember to do write the letter.

Also, make sure to remind the recommender periodically once they’ve agreed to give you the recommendation. Whatever you’re applying for may be foremost in your mind, but it’s the last thing on the mind of a professor with classes to teach, a coach with a team to train, or a former boss with employees to supervise.

Don’t be annoying, but if you haven’t heard anything for a couple weeks, it’s fine to send a short email reminder.

How to Ask for References

Asking for a reference is a lot like asking for a recommendation. In addition to the advice we’ve already discussed, keep the following in mind when asking for references.

1. Ask Permission for the Reference

This is the main thing to watch out for when putting someone down as a reference. There’s no law that says you must tell them they’re a reference, but you should still inform them. You should do this because it’s just polite, but even more because so it ensures they’ll give you a reference of high quality.

If someone calls them up asking about you and they have no idea why, then they’ll be caught off guard at best. This calls into doubt whether they even know you (not a good way to start a conversation), and it also makes them less likely to say favorable things about you compared to if you had given them a heads up.

Most people are happy to have you put them down as a reference–just ask first!

Not sure how to ask? Here’s an example of an email you could send asking someone to be a reference:

Subject: Hoping you could serve as a reference

Dear [PERSON’S NAME],

My experience in your Psychology 101 class was formative for my academic career, ultimately inspiring me to major in Psychology. Now, I’m working to put what I’ve learned in the classroom into practice through a summer internship at a research lab. As part of the application, I need someone to serve as a reference, and I was hoping you could help. As my former professor, I think you would be qualified to provide an accurate, honest description of what it’s like to work with me.

If you’re okay with being a reference, could you send me a phone number and email address I could provide for the application (if you’d prefer I use different info than what’s listed on your faculty page)?

I would be extremely grateful for your help as I work to further my education beyond the classroom.

Thank you,

[YOUR NAME]

2. Provide Accurate Contact Information

Unless you’re applying for a job at the CIA, most reference-related conversations happen via phone or, less commonly, email. To ensure this is a smooth process, be sure to provide the most up-to-date and convenient contact phone number and email for your reference.

You can ask them for this info when you get their permission to put them down as a reference.

3. Choose the Right Person

I already mentioned this in the section on recommendation letters, but it bears repeating. Since putting someone down as a reference is a less involved process than asking for a recommendation letter, it’s easy to put less thought into whom you choose.

Don’t make this mistake: the people you put down could make or break your chances of getting the job, internship, or other opportunity. Choose someone who can describe what you’re like to work with, not just someone who’s your friend or will say nice things about you.

Which reminds me: don’t put down your classmates or family members as references. They’re obviously biased, and potential employers know this. Of course, put down someone who will speak favorably of you, but make sure it’s someone who can be somewhat objective.

Get the Opportunity You Seek

Letters of recommendation and references are just one part of the job, internship, or other application process. As long as you follow the steps in this article, you can rest assured that you’ll get a quality endorsement.

This leaves you time to focus on other relevant parts of the process such as preparing for the interview, crafting a compelling cover letter, and polishing your resume.

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How to Ask for a Reference Letter

how to write a request letter of recommendation

You know how you wait until your parents are in a good mood before you ask them for something? Do that with this.

That means: Don’t ask your teachers during lunch. (They’re humans. They eat.)

Not right before class. (You’ll interrupt their class-prepping mojo.)

Not in the middle of class (just, no).

Two better options for when to ask for a letter of recommendation:

  1. Schedule a brief meeting with your teacher in advance.

    Shoot them an email asking if they have five minutes to chat with you about college sometime in the next week, then set up a time and don’t be late. The thoughtfulness will add another jewel to your crown in Letter of Recommendation heaven.

  2. Wait until all the students have left the classroom at the end of the day, and cautiously approach the teacher, as you would a wild animal.

    Here’s a sample dialogue that works:

You: “Ms. Smith, do you have five minutes to talk?” (This is key. You’re inviting her into the conversation, while also giving her a quick out if she needs one.)

Ms. Smith: “Sure, Johnny. What’s up?”

You: “Well, I’m in the throes of applying to college. I’ve got some deadlines in about three months, so I’m trying to be proactive and organized before all hell breaks loose. (She’ll love you for thinking ahead.) That’s why I’m here. Of all the teachers I’ve had, I think you know me the best, and I’m wondering: Would you be willing and able to write me a strong letter of recommendation?” (The word “strong” gives teachers a polite out if they feel like they don’t know you well enough or don’t have time to take on your letter.)

Ms. Smith: “Oh Johnny, I thought you’d never ask.” (She probably won’t say this, but you can dream.)

You: “Really? That would be wonderful/epic/lit. Tonight I’ll email you all the relevant information — my resume, my list of colleges and their deadlines, and some bullet points with stuff I’ve done in class. (See below for more info on this follow-up email.) Is there anything else you’d like from me?

Ms. Smith: “Wow, no, I think that about covers it. Thanks, Johnny.”

You: “Thank you, Ms. Smith!”

(Turns away, nearing the door. Stops as if remembering something, turns back toward Ms. Smith with a winning smile.)

You: “Oh, Ms. Smith! I almost forgot to ask … what’s your favorite coffee shop?”

Ms. Smith: “Oh heavens. Starbucks, I think. Why?”

You: “No reason! Have a great day!”

(Skips out the door and immediately jots “Starbucks — Ms. Smith” into notes app, because you’ll be getting her a Starbucks gift card and thank-you note when all this is over.)

And that’s how it’s done.

It's almost impossible to get a good reference letter from someone if you don't provide the tools necessary for them to actually write a good letter.

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation — 8 Free Templates & Samples

how to write a request letter of recommendation

If you're applying for a job, it's likely you'll need a reference. It's a good idea to get references lined up before you start a job search. That way you'll have a list of people who can recommend you ready to share with prospective employers. You can ask for a reference with a phone call, or an email or a hard-copy letter, but either way, you'll want to write your request carefully. 

Choose Your References Wisely

The person giving you a reference may need to write a letter, fill out a questionnaire, respond to an email, or speak to someone from human resources on the phone. If the person doesn't know you well, it'll show.

Always Give the Person You're Asking an Out

Make sure to give the person an easy way to decline to provide you with a reference. A bad reference can be the difference between you getting a job offer— or not. It would be preferable to have the person decline to provide a reference, rather than write a halfhearted or negative letter.

In your reference request, you can say things like "I know end-of-the-year evaluations are due soon, so if you're too busy to provide a reference, I completely understand" or "It's been five years since we worked together, so if you don't feel comfortable speaking to someone about my work habits after so long, please just let me know." 

Give Your Reference a Heads-Up

Do not give out anyone's name as a reference without their permission and without knowing what they are going to say about you. The individual who is giving you a reference needs to know ahead of time that they may be contacted regarding a reference for you. Once you have permission, let your reference providers know when you share their names with prospective employers. 

Ask Nicely

Former co-workers and managers are under no obligation to serve as a reference. You are asking for a favor, so be polite and warm in your request. You can also mention why you thought the person would be an ideal reference. 

How to Ask for a Reference Letter

References can be requested in writing or by email. If there are forms the recommender needs to complete, you may want to send an email message asking for the recommendation, then follow up with a written letter and the forms.

You can also briefly mention specific qualities and skills of yours that you would like your reference to mention. If you have any information about how the company will be reaching out to the recommender — phone, email, etc. — you can include those details as well. 

It's a good idea to review sample letters asking for a reference to get ideas for your own letters. These samples, both written and email, include the best ways to phrase your request and how to ask someone to be your reference.

Sample Letter Asking for a Reference

Download the Word Template

Sample Email Message Asking for a Reference (Text Version)

More Letter Samples Requesting a Reference

Thank Your Reference Writer

When you get a new job, don't forget to send a thank you note to the individuals who provided you with a reference. Not only will it let your reference giver know that they have helped you. It will also let them know how much you appreciated the job search help.

Choose someone who thinks highly of you, and can speak fluently about your career and talents.

In your letter requesting a reference, it can be helpful to provide the potential recommender with background information, including your current resume and a link to the job description (or a short summary).

Ashton Zimmers
123 Main Street
Anytown, CA 12345
555-555-5555
ashzimm@email.com

September 27, 2018

John Rogers
Office Manager
Acme Corporation
680 Main Boulevard, Ste. 300
Ocean City, CA 93650

Dear Ms. Rogers,

I am reaching out to ask you to provide me a reference for a new opportunity I am seeking with CBI Industries. Of course, I completely understand if you are unable to commit to this. Please just let me know as soon as possible.

I learned a lot about the industry while working for you at Acme Corporation, and I think you would be able to provide the kind of insight into my skills that would increase my chances of landing this new position. As you know, I have recently been employed at VBN Industries, heading their research and development division. The opportunity at CBI Industries is related but would also require many of the sales and marketing techniques I developed while working for you.

Thank you very much for considering my request. I have attached a copy of my updated resume and the job posting for your review. Gary Smith from Human Resources will be the contact person at CBI who will be in touch if you agree to provide the reference for me.

If you have any questions or need any further information, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Sincerely,

Ashton Zimmer

Subject line: Reference for Ashton Zimmer

Dear Ms. Rogers,

I am reaching out to ask you to provide me a reference for a new opportunity I am seeking with CBI Industries. Of course, I completely understand if you are unable to commit to this. Please just let me know as soon as possible.

I learned a lot about the industry while working for you at Acme Corporation, and I think you would be able to provide the kind of insight into my skills that would increase my chances of landing this new position. As you know, I have recently been employed at VBN Industries, heading their research and development division. The opportunity at CBI Industries is related but would also require many of the sales and marketing techniques I developed while working for you.

Thank you very much for considering my request. I have attached a copy of my updated resume and the job posting for your review. Gary Smith from Human Resources will be the contact person at CBI who will be in touch if you agree to provide the reference for me.

If you have any questions or need any further information, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Best Regards,

Ashton Zimmer
(555) 234-5678
ashzimm@email.com

Learn how to ask a college professor for a recommendation, get tips for the best to ask for a reference, and see letters requesting a recommendation examples.

how to write a request letter of recommendation
Written by Shaktishakar
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