How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

An article in the Wall Street Journal (11/26/12) reports that Americans will return to work today after their Thanksgiving vacation and spend $1.5 billion online this Cyber Monday. It’s easy to think EVERYTHING is for sale in the U.S.! One thing you can’t buy online is a letter of recommendation.

These letters have the power to gain your admittance to graduate school or secure a plum career position. They’re crucial to your future success. Here’s how to approach the process.

Prior to the ASK:

  1. Start early. Form relationships with your professors and work supervisors. Take an active interest in class or in work projects. Demonstrate the attributes you’ll want them to include in the letter (e.g., intelligence, skills, integrity, fitness for the position). Show professionalism and courtesy in all interactions to build a solid base of possible writers.
  2. Ask far in advance. Give the writer as much time as possible to complete the letter—the earlier the better, but at least a month before the due date. If you absolutely don’t have that much time, explain why the deadline came up so quickly, preferably not because of your lack of attentiveness.
  3. Be selective. Choose professors and supervisors who are both willing and capable of writing an outstanding letter for you. If your professor is a wonderful person, but habitually doesn’t return papers on time, it may mean he/she won’t meet your deadline either. Select only those who are genuinely interested in your success and who have demonstrated an ability to meet deadlines.
  4. Prepare “talking points.” Make it easy for the writer; supply the information. You may want to provide a résumé or a prepared, typed list of your relevant experiences, awards or honors received, internships or study abroad experiences, service or extracurricular activities—including any elected positions you’ve held, and anything else you’d like to be included in the letter.  Pay attention to the audience for the letter in determining what information is most important. Overall, the more information you provide, the more detailed, convincing, and credible your letter becomes.

The ASK:

  1. Be polite and professional. It’s your call whether or not to ask in person or through an e-mail. The advantage to asking in person is you get a sense about how enthusiastic he/she is to write the letter for you by observing nonverbal cues. It also gives you a chance to bring him/her up-to-date with your plans in a more personalized way. If you decide on this approach, don’t drop by unannounced. Write a polite e-mail and request a brief meeting. Then come prepared with your documents.

 You may also write an e-mail request. If you do, here is a recipe:

In the first paragraph, state the reason for the e-mail (e.g., I was hoping you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me). Refresh the writer’s memory of how he/she knows you (if necessary). You may want to include why you value the writer’s opinion and respect his/her expertise. As long as the flattery isn’t disingenuous, it’s a good opener.

In the second paragraph, explain where you are applying and why it’s a good fit for your interests. Provide all supporting information, such as your recent related jobs, research, courses and relevant experiences. You may include a copy of your résumé and other supporting documents. Refer to them at the end of this section.

In the third paragraph, include the full name and address of the recipient, and also the deadline. You may also include, “For your convenience, I’ve enclosed a preaddressed, stamped envelop.” Express your appreciation, but do not write “Thank you in advance.” Indicate you will keep him/her informed of your progress.

No matter what, do not ask for a recommendation by leaving a voicemail and requesting the writer call you back. It isn’t polite.

After the ASK:

 1. Send a thank-you note. Get this out within two weeks after you know the letter has been sent out—even if you haven’t heard whether you’ve been accepted for the position you are seeking. For more information on how to write a thank-you note, use the tag cloud and find the entry on this blog for “thank you notes.”

2. Keep in touch. Update the  periodically. It’s both polite and to your advantage. You never know if you’ll need another recommendation from this same person.

Additional Related Points:

  1. Always ask permission before using someone’s name as a reference.
  2. Waive your right to read the letter. It reassures the audience that the letter is more candid and confidential letters carry more weight with a selection committee.
  3. Do not have the attitude that your professor or supervisor owes you this letter, and writing letters of recommendation is “just part of his/her job.” He/she is doing YOU a favor. Respond accordingly.
  4. Always make sure your correspondence is error-free. Proofread carefully. Make sure to use appropriate titles and follow all specified guidelines.


Source: Cyber Monday sales are expected to rise 20% (2012, November 26). Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

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