Here’s exactly how to ask for a recommendation letter
There is no greater leap of faith one takes when applying for a fellowship or study program than asking for a letter of recommendation. Very often these letters are sent directly to the program without you ever seeing it. So while the recommendation letter is critical, it can feel completely out of your control.
But with a little forethought, you can take enough control of the process to set yourself up for success.
Here are a few simple things you can do to increase the likelihood of getting a strong recommendation letter.
Prioritize the letter-writer
Selecting who writes your recommendation is an important part of the process, since the strength of the recommendation depends largely on who writes it. Ask yourself: How well does the person whom you are asking know you and your work? Do they have a good impression of you, or share a warm rapport with you? Would they be comfortable writing it?
Rather than chasing renowned experts, high school teachers, or professors (who are likely inundated with other recommendation letter requests), ask someone with whom you have a closer relationship. This could be a professor who mentored you or guided you through an independent project, a coach for extracurricular activities, your immediate supervisor at work, or a colleague with whom you’ve worked closely.
Building relationships with your professors can be especially helpful when it comes to recommendation letters, says Xin Yi Yap, a career coach for international students. “During their academic careers, students ought to take note of the professors they get along really well [with], who teach the courses they are interested in, or have an interesting employment history. Pay attention in that first class when they talk about this!” Yap says. “Establish a relationship with them so that when the time comes for a recommendation letter, you can ask unabashedly.” Try meeting with them face-to-face at office hours if possible instead of sending them an email request.
If you don’t have a long list of professors who know you well, or who are unable to write a letter for you for college applications or job applications, choose instead the professors who are most likely to remember you. Remind them of the course(s) you may have taken with them, what you learned from their class, and any of your notable accomplishments (for instance, that you got top marks in their class or impressed them with a project). Drop in specifics wherever you can.
Remember, don't wait until the last minute to ask for a letter. Send in your request for a recommendation a minimum of three to five weeks before your application is due. Make sure the person you’re asking has plenty of time to put together a glowing recommendation and doesn’t feel rushed.
Be specific in your request
Another key to getting a strong letter of recommendation is to give the letter-writer a clear idea of what is needed for the situation. This doesn’t mean telling your person exactly what to write, but guiding them in a certain direction.
“Any time a student asked me for a letter, I asked them for their top three strengths and stories of how they employed them in my classroom or learning experiences with them,” says Erin L. Albert, former associate professor, pharmacist and lawyer.
You can engineer a spiffy recommendation letter by providing the writer with documents that outline your professional or academic career, and by offering to provide a template or bullet points for what the recommendation should cover.
Here’s what you should include as part of your request for a recommendation letter:
1. A summary document
Prepare a summary document that covers the most important details about the study program or opportunity to which you are applying. Identify the company name, university, or organization, job description, outline eligibility information, and/or describe the program and why you are interested in or suited to it. Include a link to the program website, if you can, and any other additional information that may be useful.
Here’s an example of what your summary document could look like:
A request like this gives the writer a clear picture of what the organization is looking for in a candidate and helps them put together a targeted reference letter.
2. A statement of purpose
Most job applications ask for a statement of purpose or a cover letter detailing your career goals and what you hope to learn from the position. It is a good idea to prepare these documents in advance and to send them along with your request for a recommendation.
Having your essay will give your letter-writer a better understanding of who you are, and it may save them time and (fingers crossed) assist them in writing a stronger, more focused recommendation.
3. A highlight reel of your accomplishments
To get a crisp, tailored recommendation, you should mention the accomplishments, traits or work experience that you’d like the writer to focus on in their letter in order to stand out to potential employers or application centers. An organized list of your accomplishments and work will help the letter-writer boil down what they want to say about you into a few targeted sentences, and they won’t have to strain to remember every interaction they’ve had with you.
“I share three to five bullet points of what I'd like the person to highlight or emphasize, and I tend to make sure it's not too specific,” Yap says. She says she’ll write something along the lines of, “You've often talked about how I was proactive in class. I'd appreciate it if you can highlight that with examples.”
This approach encourages your letter-writer to emphasize your strongest qualities in a way the hiring managers or admissions officers will appreciate, while making the writing process less laborious for them.
Ask how you can make the process easier
In addition to outlining the specifics of your request in a clean, easy-to-read format, you can also offer to share a template, which can simplify the process of writing a recommendation letter, particularly for those professors or supervisors who are new to the process. You can find templates online, or take an example of a strong recommendation letter for an older sibling or friend and remove the passages that are specific to them.
But make sure to ask your prospective writer before you share a template; don’t include one with your initial request, because they may see this as presumptuous or rude. Your supervisor or professor may have their own way of doing things.
Follow up, but don’t pester
Not everyone you approach will agree or even respond to your request. Prepare for no’s and unanswered requests by reaching out to a few more prospective writers than you need.
As the deadline for your application approaches, make a checklist of the different components of your application, including recommendation letters. Typically, program organizers will notify you when a recommendation letter has been received. Keep track of which letters have not gotten to the application committee and send follow-up emails one to two weeks before the application deadline.
“If the letter-writing reference has to upload the letter into a portal by a certain time, I'd just suggest following up with a quick email thanking the letter-writing reference if they've already uploaded the letter. If not, a friendly reminder of the date it is due and then close out by thanking them again,” says Albert.
If the due date is close and your follow-ups haven’t elicited a response after giving them ample time, there really isn’t much you can do. Concede defeat gracefully and see if you can get in touch with another advisor on your list.
Last but not least, do not forget to thank your references. Better yet, keep them updated on your job search or application process and let them know how their help impacted your future. Building strong professional relationships at this point in your career will lay the foundation for a solid network of people you can rely on later.
“You wouldn’t want the person to feel like you reached out only when you need something, so keep them updated,” says Yap.
Plus, you never know when a professional contact can come in handy. Your college professor may know the CEO of a company that’s looking to hire someone just like you, or they might be able to introduce you to experts in your industry.
Or you might just need them to write you another recommendation letter.
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