How to Ask Someone for a Letter of Recommendation

The Prepped Team

7 minutes

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When you’re fresh out of university or college and ready to embark on your first job search, having a strong letter of recommendation from someone can greatly improve the outcome of your job applications.

Let’s be real, until you have some solid experience to showcase on your resume, prospective employers may need some convincing to believe that you have the skills you claim to possess. And what better way to elicit their trust than to have someone corroborate the skills and achievements on your resume?

With so much riding on it, figuring out how to ask someone for a letter of recommendation can be tricky. Who’s the best person to ask for one? And how do you make sure that the letter you receive is strong enough to catch the recruiter’s attention? In this article, we provide tips to help you gather credible recommendation letters that’ll improve your chances of being hired.

In this article:

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation (LOR) is a letter written by someone to vouch for your skills and abilities and recommend you for a professional or academic position based on what they know about your past performance and attributes.

Most commonly, letters of recommendation are sought by employers before they formally offer you a job or by universities or colleges during the graduate-level admissions process.

Why do you need recommendation letters while looking for a job?

Although recommendation letters are not always required as part of the hiring process in North America, they can help you stand out as a candidate in more ways than one, especially when you’re searching for your first job after school.

Your recent grad resume might not be convincing enough

As a recent graduate, your resume may still be bare-bones and without a lot of work experience to showcase. In such a scenario, the academic achievements, volunteering and part-time work stints listed on your resume might not be enough to convince prospective employers about your skills and ability to work professionally. A strong letter of recommendation can attest to the fact that you possess and have previously put some of the skills the employer is looking for into action. 

Enhances the level of trust

A positive word from someone else is often worth more than whatever you say about your work.

A recommendation letter from a professor or someone you’ve worked closely with, such as a manager from a part-time job, can add a layer of credibility to your job application. Moreover, it shows that someone in a teaching or managerial capacity was impressed with your work, dedication, or personal ethic and is willing to vouch for you.  

Recommendation letters reflect well on you

Most employers will ask shortlisted candidates for a list of referrals for a background check; only some specifically ask for letters of recommendation. Typically, background checks are aimed at eliminating risk, so the questions your future employer asks may not always provide an opportunity for your referrals to show their appreciation for your skills or talent. On the other hand, with a letter of recommendation, you’re aware of its contents beforehand and know for a fact that it reflects positively on you. So compared to a background check, a recommendation letter gives a greater degree of control on the narrative.

Plus, it shows the hiring manager that you’re interested in the job and willing to go above and beyond to land the role. So don’t hesitate to submit an LOR as an add-on to your job application to impress the hiring manager and improve your chances of landing a job.

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Who to ask for a recommendation letter for your job application

For a letter of recommendation to carry weight, it must be from the right person. The author of the letter is just as important as its contents because the writer needs to be in a position to view your performance objectively and share an educated opinion. So, a letter of appreciation from a family member or friend does not count as a recommendation letter, as it is too likely to be biased in your favour.

When deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Have they known you in an academic or professional capacity? Your professors, teachers, or managers from your part-time or volunteer jobs would be your best bet since they’ve worked closely with you or observed you in action. These individuals would be aware of your strengths and achievements and the value you can bring to an employer.
  • Do they have more experience than you? A professional letter of recommendation from someone who has taught, mentored, or managed you previously will garner more trust from employers. Be careful not to approach someone you haven’t worked closely with just because of their seniority. A co-worker from a part-time job you held over the summer will be in a better position to talk about your professional performance than the company’s CEO you never met.
  • Is a recommendation from them relevant to the job to which you’re applying? Your LOR will be more impactful if it is from someone who managed you in a relevant role or a professor who taught a subject or skill you need for this particular job. For instance, if you’re applying for a marketing associate position, a recommendation from a professor who taught you marketing would be more valuable than a glowing letter from your English professor.
  • Do you have a positive working relationship with them? This is probably the single most important factor that will determine the quality of the letter of recommendation you receive. Someone you have a good relationship with will likely be happy to support and recommend you as you find your footing in the job market.

How to ask for a letter of recommendation for a job application

Once you’ve decided who to ask for a recommendation letter, now comes the tricky part. How do you ask a professor or former manager for a letter of recommendation? How much information should you provide them to get the best outcome? Here are some tips to help you make that ask.

  • Make a resume or a list of your qualifications, skills, and accomplishments: Even if you’ve worked closely with someone and can count on their support, they might not know about all your achievements, skills, and experiences. They may have seen you excel in a particular subject or on a specific task but may not be familiar with other skills you possess that are relevant to the job you’re applying for. It’s a good idea to prepare a handy list of your skills, qualifications, and accomplishments or a resume customized for the job you’re seeking recommendations for. Once someone agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, you can share a copy of this document for their reference.
  • Ask face-to-face first: It’s always better to ask for favours face-to-face, and asking someone for a professional letter of recommendation is no different. Depending on your relationship and their availability, you can make your request in person or over a video call. Being face-to-face lends a personal touch to your request and allows you to effectively communicate how valuable their recommendation will be for your job application. It also gives you a better sense of their comfort level and willingness to grant you this favour.
  • Send a formal request over email: Once they’ve agreed to your ask in person, follow it up with a formal email to thank them and provide more details. In your email, describe the role you’re applying for, so they can tailor their recommendation accordingly. Attach a copy of your resume, or your list of skills and qualifications, but make it clear that you’re only sharing it to provide them with a complete background and they shouldn’t feel compelled to use that information if they don’t want to. Be sure to include a timeline for when you need the letter of recommendation, but add some buffer to allow for delays.
  • Follow up, if needed: It’s a good idea to send a reminder three to five days before the due date you provided in your earlier email to ensure your letter of recommendation is still on their to-do list. If you’re collecting recommendation letters but don’t have a pressing deadline (such as a request from a prospective employer for an LOR), send a reminder three weeks after your initial email request.
  • Say thank you: Don’t forget to let them know how much you appreciate their support when they send you your recommendation letter. Not only is it polite, but it’s also a way to build on your relationship, so they’re open to recommending or referring you to future job positions. 

Six tips to help you get a strong letter of recommendation

Not all recommendation letters are equally good. For your letter of recommendation to have a real impact on the employer’s hiring decision, it needs to be well-written, convincing, relevant, and focused. Here are some tips to ensure your LOR checks all the right boxes and positions you as an ideal candidate for the job.

Decide who to ask for a recommendation letter 

Just because you worked closely with someone doesn’t necessarily mean they’d make for a good recommender. For one, they may not think highly of your work, or know you well enough to recommend you. If you plan to ask a former manager from a part-time job, reflect on how your working relationship was and the terms on which you parted ways before reaching out for a recommendation letter. 

It’s essential that you have a positive relationship with the person you’re asking and that they’re willing (and happy) to vouch for you. Avoid asking too many people for letters of recommendation. Instead, choose two or three people you’re most confident about, and have a few backup names lined up.

Give the recommender enough information about you

It’s unrealistic to assume that a professor who taught you one subject in school or a manager you worked part-time with for three months would know all your strengths and achievements. It’s advisable to let them know about the job you’re applying for and send them a copy of your resume so they know what skills to highlight in their letter. You may also want to remind them of any achievements or highlights from your time with them that would look great on your recommendation letter.

Provide ample time to write the letter of recommendation

You want whoever is writing your recommendation letter to spend time and effort on it, so you receive the best version possible. That means you should make your request at least two or three weeks before you need to send the LOR out to employers. Bear in mind your professors may be getting recommendation letter requests from several graduating students, and your former managers may have other work on their plate. You don’t want them writing your recommendation in a hurry or writing one similar to the others they are drafting.

Don’t insist if you sense reluctance

If the person you ask hesitates or refuses to write you a letter of recommendation, don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you or don’t want you to get a job. They may be busy or think they don’t know you well enough or even that you can get a stronger letter of recommendation elsewhere. Forcing someone to write your letter will only get you a half-hearted recommendation. Instead, ask someone on your backup list to ensure you get a solid recommendation.

Ask for recommendation letters before you start your job search

Use your study period to gather letters of recommendation from your professors, so you have them ready to share with employers later. If you’ve been working part-time while studying, ask your managers for a recommendation letter when you leave the job or complete a project while your accomplishments are still fresh in their minds. Don’t wait until it’s time to start your job search and then scramble to find someone who can write you one quickly.

Review your letter of recommendation

If possible, review the recommendation letters you’ve gathered before sharing them with your future employer. In rare cases, employers may want professional letters of recommendation to come to them directly from the person recommending you. However, if the recommender has sent the LOR to you so you can share it with one or more prospective employers, make sure you review it to confirm that it shows you in a positive light and highlights attributes relevant to the job. If not, you may still have enough time to ask someone else for a recommendation.

How long is a recommendation letter?

While there’s no fixed length for letters of recommendation, a typical letter will be between one or one and a half pages long. A recommendation letter from a professor or someone you worked with briefly, such as during a part-time job, will likely be closer to one page. As you gain more work experience and spend more time with the people recommending you, you can expect longer LORs. Make sure the recommendation letters you receive are on the writer’s letterhead or include their contact information, so the recruiter can follow up with the recommender to verify the letter’s contents.

If the letters you’ve received from your recommenders are shorter than a page, don’t worry. Remember, their value lies in the information they contain, not their length.

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