Letters of Recommendation

When applying to higher education institutions or applying to jobs, it is common for the admissions committee or employer to request a letter of recommendation from a former employer or professor. This can be overwhelming, as you are directly entrusting a part of your application into the hands of someone else. This task requires a lot of coordination between you and other people which can present challenges. Read on to learn how you can receive the best letter of recommendation possible.

You Are Not a Burden

It can sometimes be intimidating to ask your professor or boss to take time out of their busy schedule to write a detailed letter on your behalf, especially before a deadline. While it may feel like you are asking a lot of your superiors, if you have proven to be a good worker or student and you have a good relationship with your recommender, the person writing your letter will more than likely be honored to do so. In fact, it is often expected that when one is in a position of power educationally or professionally, there will come a time when they are asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone. As long as you go about asking for this letter of recommendation the right way, you will never be a burden for asking someone to help you with this important task.

Plan in Advance

While you should not feel like a burden for asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, it is still within your best interest (not to mention, polite), to communicate appropriately with your recommender. It is of utmost importance that you ask your recommender if they consent to writing on your behalf before you list their name and contact information on any application or form. Further, you must make sure to ask your recommender as far in advance as you can manage. Asking your recommender for their letter ahead of time is not only polite to do, (remember— they are devoting their time to your professional wellbeing and need not feel rushed) but it is also important to ensure your letter is written well and on time. The more time you give your recommenders, the more time they have to think about how to best represent you in a letter. This also leaves you with some time to answer any clarifying questions your recommender may need to know before finalizing your letter. 

Ask the Tough Questions

When asking for a letter of recommendation, it is worth noting that not just any recommender will be appropriate. You should always strive to ask for a recommendation from someone who knows you well and can attest to your character as it might apply to this job or graduate program. Getting an executive-level individual to write you a letter of recommendation might be tempting, as the name of the recommender may hold a lot of weight. But if the recommender does not know you well, a big name will not make up for the empty words spoken about you to employers or admissions committees who can detect such indifference. If you ask for a recommendation from someone you do not have a good relationship with (perhaps a professor you have bumped heads with) you risk being written a negative letter of recommendation that will hurt you more than help you (it happens more often than you might think). To avoid these issues, it is important that you ask some frank questions before signing onto a recommender. Don’t just ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation. Specifically ask, “Would you be comfortable writing me a positive letter of recommendation to go with my application to XYZ?” If the answer to the question is no, that’s okay! You can move on by asking someone more compatible who can write more confidently about you. If the answer is yes, then you have an explicit answer as to whether your potential recommender can confidently and appropriately vouch for you to schools and employers to boost your application.

Give Recommenders All the Tools They Need

Even if a recommender knows you well, it is unlikely that they have seen you perform in areas outside of the subject in which you worked or studied together. To make things easier on your recommender and to give your recommender every possible bit of information they can use to exemplify your competencies, it is helpful to send at least a resume to your recommender to aid them in their letter. It is even more effective to create a packet to send to your recommender that includes every possible document and piece of information they may find useful to writing on your behalf. As an example, your packet could include:

  1. Your contact information 
    1. Email
    2. Phone number
    3. Mailing address
    4. LinkedIn link
  2. Information about the class you took with the professor or job you held with your boss
    1. Grade received in classes
    2. Semester class was taken 
    3. Sample work from class
    4. Accomplishments from job
    5. Sample work from job
    6. Position held in job and dates of job
  3. Resume/CV
  4. Other activities or involvement not mentioned on your resume
  5. Unofficial transcript from the place where you received your highest education
  6. Professional goals
  7. Specific information regarding the school/job you are applying to
    1. Deadlines
    2. Specific language from the website outlining what they look for in a candidate
    3. Website of school/employer
    4. Why you want this job or why you are interested in this program

Express Your Gratitude

No one is ever paid extra to write you a letter of recommendation; it is almost always done in the free time of your recommender. Whether you got the position or acceptance letter that you wanted or not, you have to recognize that your recommender spent their own free time working hard to do everything in their power to further your professional interests. It is always a great idea to express your gratitude for this by writing a hand-written thank-you letter or card to your recommender. It can be short and sweet, the important thing is that it is sincere and that the recipient knows that you are grateful for their help. Phone calls and emails expressing your gratitude never hurt but a hand-written note means a lot.

Keep Everyone in the Loop

Because your recommenders have put so much time and effort into furthering your application, they too will usually be invested in the journey. Make it a point to let them know any status updates on your application, especially if you get news of success. It will delight recommenders to know that they played a part in helping you reach your goal and that you care enough to include them in your journey.


Letters of Recommendation hold a lot more weight on an application than you might think. A good recommendation could be the tipping point to your success on an application while a poor letter could take you out of the running. Knowing who and how to ask for letters of recommendation will help you secure those positive recommendations that could very well land you your dream job or grad program!


– Jordan Mercer, Peer Career Advisor