How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

When it comes to applying for a job, you’re only as good as you appear on paper. You’re hoping to stand out, state your case, and score a job — all with a few precisely-crafted pages.

But aside from your employment history, a bullet-pointed list of skills, and a narration of your greatest achievements since high school and college, there’s only so much you can say before self-assurance starts sounding like hyperbole.

The solution? Ask someone else to say a few words about you. This is common in many applications, and is referred to as a letter of recommendation or recommendation letter. In this article, you’ll learn all about what a letter of recommendation includes, who are the ideal people to write them, and how to ask them in the best way possible.

What’s a Letter of Recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a short document — usually just one page — that describes why a person is a good fit for the given position. It usually highlights someone’s qualifications, experience, skills, and strengths as they relate to employment.

As a supplementary document, a letter of recommendation helps paint a more complete picture of the entire person — something difficult to convey with just a resume and cover letter. It gives extra weight to the application, and can be a deciding factor in whether or not the person will be hired for the position.

What’s Not a Letter of Recommendation

Oftentimes, letters of recommendation and reference letters are used interchangeably. But while their content is similar, the two letters differ in direction.

Letters of recommendation are usually work-focused and very specific. They’re addressed to a single person regarding a particular position. As such, they’re typically written by a professional — a supervisor, co-worker, team member — and cover the person’s education and employment qualifications.

A reference letter, in contrast, is a more general document that doesn’t necessarily have to do with work. For example, it can be used for school or housing applications. Reference letters also don’t need to be addressed to any one person in particular, and can be sent with a number of applications. While it’s still preferred for a reference letter to come from someone professional — a faculty member, school counselor, or team leader — in some cases, it can even be written by a friend or family member.

Reasons You Might Need a Recommendation Letter

In most instances, a resume, cover letter, and any relevant portfolio or social media links are enough to submit your job application. Some industries, however, may require a few letters of recommendation. Teachers, physician assistants, or other professions that entail “softer,” more personable attributes (that aren’t easily read on a resume) are some examples of this.

Including a recommendation letter may also be a good idea if you’re just starting out or feel your documents aren’t enough on their own. In situations like these, a personal statement from a prior supervisor, a well-respected community member, or a close friend in the same industry can help to fill in the gaps.

This is also true for industries or positions that are particularly competitive. In these cases, a strong letter of recommendation can go a long way in helping your application stand apart from the rest.

Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation 

The first step to getting a good letter of recommendation is asking the right person. Before deciding who to reach out to, think about how that person would describe you to another professional — would they sing your praises or give a half-hearted shoulder shrug? This is probably how they’ll write about you, too.

The ideal person to write your recommendation should be someone with whom you have a good relationship — preferably in a position of authority — who can personally speak about your skills and strengths from first-hand experience.

If you have work experience, some good candidates would be direct supervisors, colleagues, teammates, or even people you’ve supervised and worked with closely. Generally, the more recent your experience with the person, the better. But if you feel another employer would give a better recommendation than your latest employer, then go with the former.

If you have little to no work experience, you might consider asking someone you know from school or volunteer work, or even an extended family member (like an in-law or distant relative) — don’t ask your childhood best friend or someone you grew up with, as this will likely be seen by potential employers as being “too close to home.”

Start by rounding up an initial list of potential references and then narrow it down based on industry, position, and relationship. Most hiring companies won’t ask for more than three references, but it’s a good idea to have a few more in mind in case some are unavailable.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation 

Once you’ve settled on the person you’d like to write your recommendation letter, it’s time to ask them the big question. Keep in mind that writing a recommendation letter — at least a good recommendation letter — takes time and effort. So extend to them the same time and effort by making your request in person. Not only will they appreciate the time it took (and maybe even flattered by the request), it’s also much harder for someone to flat-out refuse a face-to-face request.

When making your request, however, don’t just jump straight to the recommendation. Start by giving a little background on the matter, explaining your current situation, job search, and the position you’re applying for.

Then, emphasize the reason you chose them (for example, “I learned so much in the two years working with you, and believe no one would be more qualified to write my recommendation”) and express your gratitude (“I would really appreciate if you would be able to write me a letter of recommendation”). Remember, even if you know the person really well, it’s always best to be polite and formal.

If they agree (yay!), provide them with everything they need to write the letter. This includes sending them your most recent resume and cover letter, a copy of the specific job post, the application deadline or due date (give them ample time, at least a few weeks), and maybe any specific strengths or achievements you think would be best to include in the letter (something relevant to the position or that you think the receiving company would like to read about). If needed, you can send them a friendly follow-up after a week or two.

Should you not be able to arrange an in-person meeting with your preferred candidate, you can also send your request through email — phone calls may catch them off-guard, unless you send them an email in advance asking when they’d be free to talk. Stick to the same guidelines, and make sure you properly punctuate, spell-check, and format the email before pressing send.

Template Request for a Recommendation Letter

If you’re sending a recommendation letter request via email, here’s a template you can consider using:

Subject Line: Letter of Recommendation Request

Dear

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,

How are you? It’s been a while since we last spoke, and I hope all is well.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email. I am applying for the available [job position] at [company], and was wondering if it would be possible for you to write a letter of recommendation for me.

During my years as a [your former position] with you, I was able to learn and experience many of the things that have led me to where I am today. [Add an example of the previous statement.]

As such, I believe that no one else would be better suited to write a recommendation letter for me. I would really appreciate any kind words you might be willing to share on my behalf.

If you are unable to do so, however, I completely understand. Please feel free to let me know.

Sincerely,

[your name]

After Receiving Your Letter of Recommendation 

Once you have submitted your completed job application, along with the letter of recommendation, it would be a thoughtful gesture to send your recommendation writer an email or message of thanks.

Keep it short and sweet, like the following email template:

Subject line: Letter of Recommendation – Thanks!

Dear

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,

Thank you for writing a letter of recommendation and being a great reference for me. I wanted to let you know that I’ve sent in my completed application for the [job position] at [company].

Once again, I greatly appreciate the time and help you’ve given.

Sincerely,

[your name]

When you’re accepted for the position, here’s a good template you can use to express your thanks:

Subject line: Accepted Job Offer

Dear

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,

I hope you’re well. I wanted to send an update that I have just accepted the [job position] at [company]. This wouldn’t be possible without your letter of recommendation.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Sincerely

[your name]

Thank You, Your Application Is on the Way

A letter of recommendation is a great way to round off your job application, adding a personal touch about who you are and how you’d fit in as a potential employee. In combination with a resume and cover letter, the hiring company should be able to get a clear picture of who you are, what it would be like to work with you, and why they should hire you for the job.

So if you’re searching for your next job, consider contacting people from your network for a few good recommendation letters, and increase your chances of being hired.

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