Do’s and Don’ts: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Many students end up asking for a letter of recommendation.

Flickr user Allison Mickel

Whether it’s for a college application, a scholarship, an internship opportunity, or something else, odds are you’ll be required to produce a letter of recommendation at multiple points in your education. These letters serve as a sort of testimony to you as a person, student, and member of society. Written by teachers, coaches, and other leaders, the letters are often an integral part of earning whatever you’re applying for.

Asking people for a letter of recommendation can feel like a daunting task. It’s not always easy to ask other people for favors, especially when your future feels as though it hangs in the balance. How do you ask someone to take time out of their schedule to benefit you? Whom do you ask to do this? Here is a collection of do’s and don’ts to help you find those answers.

DO: Be Polite.

This one is a given regardless of who you are asking to write a recommendation letter for you. It doesn’t matter if whoever you are asking is someone that you spend time with outside of your job or school. Manners show that you are serious about what you are doing. They say that you are not taking your referee for granted. Show your respect for your referee’s time in even listening to your request. They are taking time to meet with you or read your email. If they have the time to craft a good letter for you, excellent. If they don’t, thank them for their consideration. As a bonus (at least for me personally), hiding behind a polite front masks how awkward it can be asking someone to do something for you.

DON’T: Leave Things to Last Minute.

You set yourself up for disappointment when you contact someone two weeks out from the due date. From my experience, most people you ask for a recommendation letter are all too happy to write it, but they need time. Professors and teachers are busy over the course of a school year with tests and papers to grade and classes to plan. They also have (gasp) personal lives outside of school. The same goes for any former employers you ask. The more time you can give a possible referee, the more likely you are to receive a letter. It’s also nice if you can provide the application due date to ensure everyone is on the same timeline.

DO: Consider What You Are Applying For.

What you are applying for affects who might be best suited to write your recommendation letters. For example, if you are applying to a program so you can teach English, you’ll want to consider people who have seen you teach or who can vouch for your mastery of the English language. Try to keep your referees in the field that you are applying to.

DON’T: Automatically Pick Favorites.

It might be that your favorite teacher or employer is the perfect person to write that recommendation letter, but sometimes that is not the case. Your referee should know you well and be able to talk about your skills and virtues. Along with that, a referee’s knowledge of you has to be relevant to the application. You also want them to be able to write an effective letter. Keep those things in mind when asking for recommendations.

DO: Provide Any Essays Pertinent to the Application.

Providing the essay you’ve written for an application will help your referee to understand your mindset and goal. It gives them an idea of how best to structure their letter based on the information in your essay. It also ensures that the letter stays on point. By giving referees direction, you are less likely to receive a generic letter that any instructor or employer could have written.

DON’T: Ask the Bare Minimum Number of People.

It is important to remember that things happen that are not in our control. Emergencies come up, heavy workloads take all our energy, surprise conferences and travel are required, etc. With that in mind, it pays to have several people on the line for a reference letter. If you need three letters, try to come up with at least two extra people you would be comfortable asking to write a letter for you.


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