How to ask for a letter of recommendation

Applying for a job, internship, fellowship, scholarship, college admission or graduate school? Congratulations on taking your next big step in life.

Don’t be shy about asking for a recommendation letter. It’s a common and often required part of any job or school application process. Knowing some basics about how to ask may give you more confidence.

Key takeaways

  • Some job and college applications may require one or more letters of recommendation.
  • The letter could come from a trusted colleague, teacher or community leader.
  • Recommendations from influential people can help give you a competitive edge.
  • The more personal and specific the letter, the better. Details can help you stand out.

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What is a letter of recommendation?

A recommendation letter is an official document from someone who knows you—personally, professionally or academically. It can be written by anyone who can vouch for your character and qualifications. Some employers and academic programs may require one. Even if they don’t, consider asking for a letter of recommendation anyway. It could give you a competitive advantage over other applicants.

Professional letter of recommendation

A professional letter of recommendation can talk about why you’re the best candidate for a job. It can add to your resume and cover letter by:

  • Celebrating your best qualities
  • Vouching for your character, trustworthiness and work ethic
  • Validating your skills, achievements and past performance
  • Matching your past experiences to the job requirements 

Letters of recommendation for college and graduate school

An academic letter of recommendation can give college admissions recruiters insights that go beyond your GPA, school transcripts and test scores. Letters of recommendation for undergraduate school or graduate school might talk about how you could fit in with the campus culture and why your chances of graduating are good. The details could draw on your character or your successes from high school, community college or undergraduate college.

Letters of recommendation vs. references

A recommendation letter formally backs your qualifications for a specific job or college application. It’s typically addressed to a particular person, like a hiring manager or a college admissions recruiter.

A reference letter gives a more general, informal, multipurpose overview of your character or abilities, for use whenever you need it. It’s not typically addressed to a specific person. It can be written by anyone who knows you well—a family member, friend, neighbor, classmate or colleague, or an associate from a club, volunteer organization or other community activity.

How to request a recommendation letter

When requesting a letter of recommendation, here are some things to keep in mind:

Decide who to ask

When you’re considering who to ask for a letter of recommendation, think about the people who know you best. To start, you could make a list of trusted people who have mentored, supported or had positive experiences with you. 

To narrow down your list, you could think about who has the most impressive credentials, years of experience, and relevance to your job search or graduate school application. Then you could make your final choice based on how recent your relationship with them was. 

Your references can be:

  • Professional: employers, managers or respected colleagues
  • Academic: teachers, tutors, other faculty members, guidance counselors, school administrators, club organizers and athletic coaches
  • Personal: club, church, civic, community and volunteer organization leaders

It may help you to ask for more recommendation letters than you need. If the application requires one recommendation letter, think about getting three. If it requires three, maybe get five. That way, you can pick the best ones to submit and have backups if you need them.

Person writing notes in front of a laptop in a cafe.

When asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, you could include key points you want them to make about you, like your goals and strengths.

Update your resume

It might help your reference to see the other documents you’ll include with your application. So it’s a good idea to make sure your resume is up to date with your goals, accomplishments, and academic or professional experience. 

When you ask for a letter of recommendation, you could also prepare to send other documents, like cover letters, awards, work samples, academic transcripts, a list of volunteer or extracurricular activities and even the job description or college application requirements. 

Give your reference enough time

It’s polite to ask for recommendation letters as early as possible. Consider whether it’s a particularly busy time of year for your reference. Professionals can be busiest around the holidays and at the end of the calendar year. Academics can be busiest at the beginning and end of a school year and during testing times like midterms and finals. 

For academic applications, employment website Indeed suggests allowing at least four to six weeks.

Ask them in person first

Remember, your reference is doing you a favor. So a face-to-face meeting, preferably made by appointment, can be a courteous and respectful way to ask for a recommendation letter. If that’s not possible, a phone call can be more personal than an email or text. 

Be prepared to explain what you’re applying for, why you think you’re a good candidate and why you’ve chosen this person to recommend you. 

It’s always possible that the person you ask to write you a letter of recommendation says no. Don’t be discouraged or take it personally. They may be too busy. They may feel unqualified. Or their employer may not allow it. You can still thank them for their time and consideration.

Send a formal request

If your reference agrees to write you a recommendation letter, send them an email—or a handwritten letter for a more personal touch—to thank them again. You could include:

  • The key points you want them to make about your goals, strengths, experience, capabilities, accomplishments and potential—and the more personal they can make their letter, the better you may stand out
  • Your resume and any other documents you’ve prepared for them
  • A due date that’s preferably before the application deadline
  • The preferred or required length and format of the letter—e.g., email, PDF or text document
  • The contact’s name, title, and mail and email addresses
  • A postage-paid envelope if the letter of recommendation needs to be mailed

Thank them again

If your reference mails or emails your recommendation letter to you, let them know you received it. Graciously thank them for their time and effort.

Tell them the outcome

When you get your answer, let your references know whether you landed the job or school admission. If you didn’t, tell them about your next steps and ask them if you can use their recommendation letter or parts of it in future applications.

Letter of recommendation template

Some employers and academics may have experience writing recommendation letters. And some may not. 

One way you can help is to provide them with a letter of recommendation template. They’re pretty easy to find with an online search. You could choose one you like and share it with your reference.

How to ask for a letter of recommendation in a nutshell

If you’re thinking of asking for a letter of recommendation, it can help make the process easier—for you and the person providing the letter—if you keep a few things in mind. 

Remember that some employers and graduate school admissions recruiters may actually require one or more letters of recommendation for the application process. Choose your references wisely. Ask them well in advance of your application deadline. And outline key points and give them documents to help them write the most impactful letter. After all, strong recommendations from influential people can make you a stronger applicant who stands out in a crowded field.

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