How To Ask For a Letter of Recommendation
If you have a well-established professional history within an industry, then your past work can speak for itself. But college students, recent graduates, and people switching careers aren’t quite as lucky. When your resume isn’t as dense as you’d like it to be, or your past experiences aren’t blatantly applicable to your new field, what you need to bridge the gap is a letter of recommendation.
But weak letters of recommendation can harm your candidacy more than they help. That’s why you need to know the elements of how to ask for a letter of recommendation: when it’s worth asking for a letter of recommendation, who can write the most effective letters, and what you can give your recommender to help things along.
When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Place yourself in the position of an employer. How do you choose between two candidates claiming to have the same set of skills? If only one of the two candidates had a glowing letter of recommendation, you would have an instant tie-breaker. College students and recent graduates competing for jobs are going to find themselves in similar situations. And in those circumstances, getting a letter of recommendation is one of the best moves you can make to set yourself apart from other applicants.
Letters of recommendation can be just as useful for people switching careers. Even if you have years of work experience, much of it may not be directly relevant to your new career path. Your resume will increasingly rely on demonstrating how your transferable skills can be applied to new work.
When the case you’re making to a prospective employer is “hire me because I have good interpersonal skills”, it helps to be able to back up your claim. Although there may be no certificate or degree for interpersonal skills, a letter of recommendation shows someone who worked with you is willing to stake their reputation on those claims.
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Some recommendations are worth more than others. Don't ask a professor simply because they gave you a good grade, or an ex-coworker merely because they liked you. By the same token, don’t ask anyone who can’t give you their full-hearted support. Lukewarm letters either won’t help you or will be detrimental to your cause.
The right person to ask for a letter of recommendation is someone who has worked closely with you. It can be anyone at all, as long as they can speak in detail to your experience and capabilities. If you’re a student or recent graduate, then you’ll probably want to ask a professor, advisor, or another academic mentor.
If you’re changing careers, you may want to ask an old manager or colleague. However, you may want to think twice about asking someone where you’re currently working, unless you’ve already handed in your letter of resignation. Asking for a letter of reference can be an inelegant way of letting slip that you’re looking to make a change.
What to Provide When Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
The type people you want to write you a letter of recommendation are usually also the type with a busy schedule. Make it easy for them by giving them a clear picture of what your letter of recommendation will entail and provide them with relevant details about the position and your experience to-date:
When do you need it? The first thing you’ll want to provide for your letter-writer is information about when you’ll need the letter finished.
What specifics do you need / want your letter to include? Beyond deadlines, what you should provide depends largely on who you’re asking. Professors are used to being asked to write letters of recommendation, and usually have access to your academic records. But if you’re asking a coworker, then you may be dealing with someone who has never written a letter of recommendation in their entire life.
What is the position you’re applying for? / Your current resume or CV: To help streamline efforts, you’ll want to let the person writing your letter of recommendation know about the position you’re applying for, and give them an outline of your resume.
If you know the qualities your prospective employer is looking for, be sure you ask your person to honestly highlight those qualities through tangible achievements and interactions with you.
For college students, that means projects you’ve worked on that may relate to the industry you’re looking to join.
For people changing careers, that means illustrating professional challenges you’ve faced, and the decisions you made to overcome them.
If the person you ask is too busy to write your letter, they may be open to having you write it, and lending their signature after a quick review. Writing your own letter is an opportunity to ensure you focus attention on the attributes you want seen. But don’t go over the top with self-praise. The point of these letters is to provide an objective summary of your skills, and how they would be advantageous to an employer.
What To Do After You Get a Recommendation Letter
After you’ve got your recommendation letter, you’ll want to follow up with a note of appreciation. Asking for a letter of recommendation is essentially asking for a favor, and showing appreciation for receiving favor will make someone more likely to help you again in the future. For example, if you’re getting a letter from a former coworker, they might appreciate if you offer to reciprocate in-kind at a later time. And if you’re still looking for help with your job search, check out our Career Planning Resources to uncover even more ways to grow your career.
Letter of Recommendation Samples
To Whom It May Concern:
I'm writing to recommend Marshal Smith for your organization. During 2008 to 2013, I employed and supervised Mr. Smith in his role as assistant librarian. His tenure was marked by an increase in productivity all around the library. I was comfortable allowing him to work independently because he always followed through on tasks.
During his time here, Marshal developed a training program for future librarians that we still use to this day. His initiative and can-do attitude is something that’s sorely missed around here. I believe Marshal’s would be an asset to any company. Please let me know if you have any other questions,
Director of Libraries
To Whom It May Concern:
I have known Susan Jones for three years, during which time she has taken six of my classes at Big America University. Ms. Jones was always an engaged and active participant in classroom discussions, and her excellent communication skills made her an asset in the classroom.
During her time here, Ms. Jones revitalized the Big America’s formerly defunct Jazz Club. Under her leadership, she’s managed to double club membership in only two years. As far as I am concerned, any school would be lucky to have her.
If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at 555-5555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Julie Teacherperson
Professor of Anthropology, Big America University
Letters of recommendation can set your application apart by serving as supporting evidence to your resume. If you ask the right person and provide the right details, you’ll find a strong letter of recommendation can greatly help almost any application process.