Rachel Amos frequently finds herself asked to write a letter of recommendation — and frequently she declines.
As director of career services and employer relations for Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute (INI), she coaches students on their careers and is often asked by them to write a letter of recommendation on their behalf.
“I always have to say ‘no’ unfortunately,” Amos said. “I tell them it’s because I haven’t had you in a class, I don’t know if you turn your homework in on time, I don’t know the quality of your homework or projects, I don’t know if you participate in class, so I’m not the best person to ask for a letter of recommendation. The best letter of recommendation is going to be from somebody who can say the most about you.”
3 steps to politely request a letter of recommendation
- Get buy-in from the person you are asking to write the letter of recommendation.
- Make the process of writing the letter of recommendation as easy as possible.
- Express gratitude after they have written the letter of recommendation and provide an update on the outcome of the application.
What Is a Professional Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of recommendation attests to your strengths, capabilities and attributes and is written by someone who is familiar with your work or academic performance. The purpose of the letter is to help you get a job or secure admission into a college or program of your choice.
Requesting a letter of recommendation shouldn’t be confused with asking someone to serve as your reference.
“When you ask someone to be a reference, it’s simply saying that you’re available to speak about the candidate to an organization. Asking them to write a letter of recommendation is a bit different. It’s much more proactive,” JR Keller, assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University, told Built In. “Whoever is your recommender is actually writing down and communicating all your positive attributes to the organization.”
Letters of recommendation are often required when applying to college, or popular programs that have far more applicants than available slots. And while most employers don’t require letters of recommendation when applying for a position, these letters can potentially give you an edge in the job selection process if done right, career experts and hiring managers said.
A letter of recommendation can also be used as a vehicle for internal promotions too, such as a move into leadership or other opportunities at your current employer, said Blake Tomlinson, senior talent acquisition manager at cybersecurity firm BeyondTrust.
And while letters of recommendation may help you land a job, they are the most effective when targeting a particular position, rather than trying to serve as a one-size fits all.
“I don’t think having a letter of recommendation in the can quite works if you plan to use it for your job search,” Kevin Susman, vice president of brand and communications at Matrixx Software. “When I get asked to write a letter of recommendation, I always ask what do you want me to highlight to help you land the job? That’s why it doesn’t make sense to proactively ask for a letter of recommendation before you have a specific job in mind.”
Who Is Qualified to Write a Letter of Recommendation?
“You should ask your current or former direct manager or supervisor, someone who actually saw your work, your metrics, your performance on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis and who is in a position to assess you,” Zafar Choudhury, a senior recruiting leader at Amazon Web Services told Built In.
If given a choice between asking a current or past manager for a letter of recommendation versus a vice president or other high-level executive you worked with in the past, career experts have mixed recommendations.
A vice president or executive may have seen your work on a specific project but probably not the day-to-day challenges, said Choudhury. It’d be better to get a letter of recommendation from the manager versus an executive, he said.
A former manager, for example, could write a letter of recommendation with specific outcomes of a project and how well it was executed. While a letter from an executive might be complimentary but vague.
However, a letter of recommendation from a vice president or other high-level executives may catch the attention of recruiters or hiring managers, who skim through applications in a matter of seconds, said Victoria Neal, HR Knowledge Advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
It’s also wise to have a number of people in mind to approach for a letter of recommendation. For example, if you don’t land the job and need another targeted letter from a different prospective employer, you don’t want to have to go to the same person each time to write another letter, Susman warned.
For letters of recommendation to graduate school, select professors who are familiar with your classroom participation, class projects, or office hour visits.
“You want a professor who has a taste of the kind of person you are, rather than just knowing you as a name on a class roster,” said Sarah Sikowitz, a director in Career and Professional Development at Harvard Business School.
How Do You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?
Aim to ask for a letter of recommendation at least a month before it’s due, career experts and hiring managers said.
Make the initial request by phone or in person, whenever possible, because it’s easier to get a read on whether they would feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for you, said Tomlinson. Let them know why you have chosen them — maybe it’s because you really enjoyed working with them or you knocked it out of the park on a few projects with them and you want to highlight those successes, Tomlinson added.
However, if you’re writing an email with the request that could give the recipient more time to consider instead of putting them on the spot.
“I think email is better than in person because I have a chance to read through the request and decide how I want to respond,” Keller said. “I may want to let them know why I may be hesitant to write a letter and it’s harder to communicate that clearly in the moment.”
Make your initial email request concise, Amos said. College faculty are very busy with hundreds of students emailing them or dropping by during office hours, as well as having to supervise their teaching assistants.
Be sure you include all the necessary details and make it as easy as possible for them to write the letter. You’ll want to tell them why you need it and what it’s for, plus any deadlines or instructions on how to send it, career experts said.
In general, it’s helpful to provide a list of talking points, career accomplishments as well as a copy of your resume and the job description. If you’re asking a college professor for a letter, it’s important to include your GPA, accomplishments in their class and other classes, and extracurricular activities.
In some cases, it might be appropriate to offer to write the initial draft of the recommendation letter which your manager or professor could then review and edit if needed, Choudhury said.
Give professors and former work associates at least a week to make up their mind whether they want to write you a letter of recommendation on your behalf, Tomlinson said. Other career experts also noted to give people an easy out when inquiring about their willingness to write a letter of recommendation.
“Letters of recommendation are a great way for me to validate what an employee has accomplished and contributed to the company. When I am asked to write one, I also see it as a reflection of the company values, in our desire to maintain a professional connection to people who, although no longer with the company, continue to shine within the industry,” said Emily Flanigan, head of North America marketing for Infobip.
Here are two templates to set you on your way.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation (Work-Related Template)
Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. (person’s name),
I hope all is well with you. I’m currently interviewing at (company) for the position of (position) and wanted to inquire if you would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation on my behalf.
It’s been (X weeks, months or years) since we worked together at (company), when I was a (former role) and you were my (former role). I remember this time fondly and truly enjoyed working with you and the work we did.
As my former (role), I believe you can speak to my skills in (select your skills that match up to the ones sought in the job description) and experience in (select your qualifications that match up to the ones sought in the job description) with specifics and examples.
I have included a copy of my resume, a list of my accomplishments and the job posting for your reference. Additionally, if you would prefer, I could write a draft of my letter of recommendation for you to review and approve or adjust if needed. Please let me know if this is your preference.
I would greatly appreciate it if you could write and return the letter of recommendation to me by (name a date at least two weeks before you plan to use it). This will provide me enough time to forward it onto the recruiters and hiring managers at (company).
I am extremely grateful you would consider taking time out of your day to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. Your willingness to do this means a great deal to me.
If you have any questions or need further information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation (College-Related Template)
Dear (Professor or Dr.) (person’s name),
I hope all is well with you. I’m currently applying to (college or program) where I hope to (major in or study) (topic) and I wanted to inquire if you would feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf.
I truly enjoyed having you as my (advisor or professor) in (subject) when I attended (college). It’s been (X months or years) since I (attended your classes or had you as an advisor) and truly enjoyed that experience and gained valuable knowledge.
I have included a copy of my resume, a list of my accomplishments and personal background, which I hope will be of value when writing the letter of recommendation and providing specific examples of my talents and abilities in and outside of the classroom.
The deadline to submit the letter of recommendation is (deadline date). Please submit the letter of recommendation per the instructions of the (college/university or program).
I am extremely grateful you would consider writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf. It means a lot to me that you would take time out of your busy schedule to help me.
If you have any questions or need further information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Signs Someone Won’t Write a Letter of Recommendation
If a former manager or executive at a company where you worked declines your request for a letter of recommendation, it could stem from the company’s policy that prohibits writing letters of recommendation on corporate letterhead or from a company email account, Susman said. If that is the case, inquire whether a personal letter of recommendation can be written.
“That’s how we’ve handled it in the past,” Susman said. “We had an events person we had to let go because of the pandemic and she asked for a letter of recommendation. I could give a personal letter of recommendation but I couldn’t do it on Matrixx’s corporate letterhead.”
On other occasions, people have asked Susman to write a letter of recommendation where he felt uncomfortable with their request. Those feelings stemmed from not knowing the person well enough to write the letter of recommendation and he had to turn them down.
If the person who you’ve asked to write a letter repeatedly reschedules your meeting to discuss your request, it’s time to look for alternative options.
“If they drag their feet on responding back to you, they’re probably not a good person to ask for a recommendation. They are either too busy or reluctant because their experience with you wasn’t great. Find another individual to write your letter of recommendation,” Choudhury said. “You shouldn’t have to grovel for this.”
When to Send a Letter of Recommendation
Timing is key when providing an unsolicited letter of recommendation. Some career experts advise uploading the letter of recommendation at the same time you upload your resume and work samples, while others suggest including it with a thank you card after the final round of interviews.
“Uploading your letter of recommendation with your resume during the application phase may be a differentiator,” Neal said. “You don’t want to hold back and hold off on submitting something that could have made a difference.”
But holding off and sending your letter of recommendation with a thank you note could reinforce your attributes and skills that came through during the interview process and will be discussed during the hiring team’s debrief,” said Choudhury, adding he feels it’s wiser to submit your letter of recommendation at the end of the interview process.
What to Avoid When Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
“One thing to avoid is asking for a letter of recommendation and telling them it’s due by tomorrow. It shouldn’t feel like a last minute request,” Keller said, noting professors should ideally be given at least a one month notice.
Not only should you avoid sending the request by text, but also be careful to send requests that are poorly written or contain typos, Keller said.
There shouldn’t be any confusion around why you’re reaching out for a letter of recommendation, Tomlinson said, adding, “Inform the writer of your motivation. I wouldn’t leave it open for interpretation.”
And never ask people to write a letter of recommendation for you if they are not familiar with your work.
8 Steps to Avoid When Asking For a Letter of Recommendation
- Don’t ask for a letter of recommendation at the last minute
- Don’t text your request asking for a letter of recommendation
- Don’t send a poorly written, incoherent request to write a letter of recommendation
- Don’t forget to say why you are asking for a letter of recommendation
- Don’t forget to give a deadline of when the letter needs to be submitted
- Don’t ask someone to write a letter of recommendation who isn’t familiar with your work or academic performance
- Don’t constantly nag the letter writer to submit the document, though it’s ok to send one or two reminders.
- Don’t rewrite the letter of recommendation
If someone has taken the time to write a letter of recommendation, don’t re-write the letter either, Susman said.
“Be cognizant of the fact that you’re making an ask of someone,” he added. “And, frankly, they are putting their reputation out there for you and you should treat it with respect.”
How to Show Appreciation
It sounds simple but it’s a step that’s often overlooked. You should not only thank the person for their willingness to write a letter of recommendation but also thank them after they have written it.
“You should always send a heartfelt thank you because it’s time and effort on their part, so don’t skip this step. Take the time to write a thank you,” Amos said. “That’s really important to thank someone when they go to the trouble of doing that for you.”
Additionally, it’s equally important to loop back with the person who wrote your letter of recommendation to update them on the final outcome of your job interview or college admissions effort, said career experts and hiring managers.
“When you get your answer whether you’ve been admitted or not admitted, hired or not hired, follow up with this person and thank them again,” Sikowitz said. “I think it’s just a really nice way to close the loop.”