how to ask letter of recommendation

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

by Becton Loveless

“Could you please write me a letter of recommendation?”

It seems pretty simple, right? Walk up to your favorite teacher, coach, counselor, etc. and ask for the letter. As with most things in life, though, it’s more complicated than that. What you might not even realize is that the way you ask for a letter of recommendation can have a major impact on how good (or bad) the letter is in the end.

I’ve written countless letters of recommendation, and the way my students have asked for letters has had an impact on the quality of letter I’ve been able to write for them. Even the way you ask the question can change my willingness to write a good letter.

Consider these two phrasings:

“Hi Mrs. Betz. How are you? Would you be willing to write me a positive letter of recommendation for my college application?”

Vs.

“I need a letter of recommendation by tomorrow.”

Obviously, the first phrasing is setting you and your letter off on the right foot. If I’m feeling generous, the second phrasing is getting you a hastily written letter that isn’t very personalized at best. If I’m not feeling very generous, that second phrasing isn’t getting you a letter at all.

If you really want a good letter of recommendation, there are actually many things you can do. The content of the letter isn’t as out of your hands as you might think. Continue reading to learn about everything you can do to set someone up to write a glowing letter of recommendation for you.

Step 1: Create a resume

This doesn’t have to be a full fledged, perfectly formatted formal resume; what matters is that you create a list of your activities and accomplishments. Without this list, the person writing your letter of recommendation will only have limited information to go on. Giving this resume or list to the person who will write your letter allows them to write about you as a more well-rounded individual, instead of just in the capacity they know you. The more information I have about a student, the easier it is for me to write their letter.

For example, say you ask your math teacher to write your letter. He or she only knows what you’re capable of in math class. If you give that teacher your resume, then he or she can include in the letter that not only did you excel in math class, but that you did it while also being president of Key Club and playing soccer.

This is important, too if you need to ask someone who doesn’t know you particularly well to write you a letter. We’ll talk next about why you should ask someone who knows you well, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. Maybe the letter needs to be from a science teacher and you aren’t very close with any of your science teachers, or maybe you just haven’t formed a very strong connection with anyone in a position of authority who can write a letter for you. In these cases, it’s particularly important to provide the person you’re asking with a detailed list of your skills, accomplishments, activities, interests, and anything else you think could be relevant.

Step 2: Carefully consider who you’ll ask

Many students default to asking the teacher who teaches a class they have good grades in. This isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it’s not always the most effective tactic, either. Often, you’ll find someone who will be able to write a more impressive letter about you when you choose someone who has seen your work ethic or who has gotten to truly know you as a person, not just someone who knows that history comes easily to you.

You’ll also want to think about who will be able to write a letter that is relevant to the position or program you’ll be applying to. If you need a letter of recommendation because you’re applying to a leadership position, ask someone who can speak to your leadership skills in a letter. In this case, your swimming coach might be a better person to ask than your English teacher who doesn’t know anything about your ability to excel as a leader.

Another mistake to avoid is asking the “most important” person you know. Sure, it might look impressive to have a letter from the principal, but if he or she barely even knows your name, they’re not going to be able to write a very strong letter. Similarly, it might seem better to have a letter from your head football coach, but if your position coach spent more time with you and knows you better, they’ll probably write a better letter for you.

According to Stanford University “The more detailed, personalized a letter is, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on a selection committee. So ask your instructors with the most extensive, personal knowledge of you and your work.” It’s easy for a hiring or admissions committee to spot a generic or templated letter. The more the person writing the letter knows you, the more detailed letter you’ll get.

Step 3: Think about how you’ll ask

Obviously, you should be courteous and polite when you ask someone to write you a letter, but there is one little adjective you’ll want to make sure you slip in there when you ask. That adjective? Good (or positive, favorable, or any other synonym of the word).

“Could you write me a letter of recommendation?” vs “Could you write me a positive letter of recommendation?”

Those two questions seem very similar, and they are, but the second question guarantees the letter will actually paint you in a positive light, and it makes the person you’re asking think for a minute before they agree to write the letter.

Sometimes teachers, coaches, counselors, or other adults agree to write a letter of recommendation without really thinking about whether they can write a good letter about you. This leaves them in a bind later when they start the letter and realize they don’t have many good things to say. Rather than come back and tell you that they actually can’t write a letter for you, they’ll likely end up writing a more generic letter that doesn’t really make you stand out.

If you flat out ask someone if they can write a positive letter about you, they’ll actually think about it first. If they realize that they can’t write a glowing letter about you, that stings, but at least you know to ask someone else who might be able to write a better letter.

Step 4: Explain what the letter is for

When someone asks me to write a letter of recommendation for them, I can write a much better letter if I know the purpose of the letter. Sometimes, students just need a general letter, but other times, they need a letter for a specific job or to apply to a specific program in college. Georgia Southern University explained, “A recommender can write a stronger letter if he or she can speak specifically to the relationship between your skills and experiences and the position.”

If you need a letter to go along with your application to work as a nurse’s aid, let the person you’re asking know. They’ll have a better idea of what skills and qualities they should highlight when writing your letter. It’s always easier to write things when you have a purpose, so when students tell me exactly what they need the letter for, I’m not taking a shot in the dark when I choose which qualities to write about.

Step 5: Give them more than enough time

Some teachers or coaches get asked to write more letters of recommendation than they can handle. Remember that they’re doing you a favor and they don’t need to write a letter. A good letter can take quite a bit of time to write, and they’re carving time out of their schedule or taking time away from their family to write your letter. If you give them a short deadline, you increase the chances that they won’t be able to write you a letter or that they won’t have time to write a quality, personalized letter.

There are many variables that go into how long someone might need to write your letter, but I always appreciate it when students give me two weeks. If you can give longer, even better.

As an added bonus, giving them more than enough time speaks to your organization and time management skills--a skill they might even mention in your letter.

Step 6: Make it easy for them

Does the letter need to be emailed to somebody? Is there a specific form that needs filled out? Does it need to be mailed? Is there a specific format the letter is supposed to follow?

Don’t leave them guessing. Even if you’re asking a teacher who has written hundreds of letters, don’t assume he or she knows anything about the needs of your specific letter. Let them know exactly how the letter needs to be sent so it gets done correctly and the process is easy for them.

As recommended by Northeastern University, “You're already asking them to put themselves out and write the letter for you. Don't ask them to address it and put postage on it for you, too.”

Step 7: Give them an incentive

I’m going to be honest here: writing your letter of recommendation is a chore. It doesn’t matter how much your teacher or coach loves you, there are other things they could be doing with their time. If you give them an incentive to get your letter done, they might just get it done sooner, and this technique I’m going to describe makes it less awkward for you to ask them if they have it done yet.

I first heard about this brilliant idea from The Last Lecture by Randy Paush. Let’s be clear: I’m not advocating for bribery, this is simply a way to encourage the person to get the letter done and to thank them for doing it. In the book, Randy uses Thin Mints, but you could use any treat you know the person writing your letter likes. We’ll just assume they like cookies.

Here’s what you do:

When they agree to write your letter, give them a box of cookies--with a catch. Explain to them that the cookies are a way of thanking them for writing your letter, but the catch is that they can’t eat the cookies until they write your letter. They’ll appreciate the gesture, and it just might encourage them to write it sooner rather than later. As the deadline for your letter is approaching, it’s much less awkward to say “did you eat your cookies yet?” than to say “did you write my letter yet?”

Step 8: Don’t expect to see the letter

When it’s all said and done, you might expect to see a copy of the letter or be tempted to ask for one. Everyone likes to hear nice things about themselves, but this isn’t the time to fish for compliments. The person writing your letter might give you a copy, or they might not. In fact, some employers and schools have rules that don’t allow you to see your letters. Northwestern University explains, “the idea is that the professor sends an honest evaluation without having to explain him/herself to the student.”

This can be nerve wracking, but if you’ve followed all of these steps, you can rest assured that the letter will paint a positive picture of you, because remember that you asked if they could write a positive letter about you.

If the person writing your letter offers you a copy, great, but if they don’t, it’s best not to ask. In the case that you want a copy of the letter for future use, simply let them know that you might be applying to more places that require a letter of recommendation, and ask them if they can keep your letter on file. Then, when you apply somewhere, touch base and ask if they would be willing to send your letter out again.

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