Asking for A Recommendation Letter

Writing By Hand

One Tip for Getting a Better Recommendation

There are a number of best practices you should consider when  asking for professional references or recommendation letters. 

I just got done writing a recommendation letter and want to highlight one of these best practices by sharing my experience as the person writing the recommendation.

In general, I want to help as many people as possible in their careers. This is especially true of those who have worked for me. I say this not as a pat on my own back but to let you know where I'm coming from:

I like writing recommendation letters and being a reference. Not everyone feels this way.

Even if you like being a reference, it still takes time out of your day. And to write a good, personal recommendation letter it can take a non-trivial amount of time. 

Don't let this scare you away from asking someone to be a professional reference. Instead, be sure that you make it as easy as possible for your reference. 

One of the best ways to do this is to do your research and provide your reference with as much information upfront as possible. 

In the instance that made me think of this, someone I think highly of asked me to write a recommendation letter for a program they are applying for. 

I was happy to do it but when I sat down to write the letter I found I had a lot of unanswered questions:

  • What exactly is this program?
  • Why specifically is this person applying for it?
  • What do they want to accomplish in the program and how does that map to what I know about this person's skills, abilities, goals, etc.?
  • What does this person want the program to know about them?
  • How are applicants evaluated? (i.e.: past accomplishments, character, potential, etc.?)
  • When do I need to send my letter by? (i.e.: when in the application deadline?)
  • Why am I being asked to be a reference? In other words, what is it that I can speak to that the applicant thinks matters?
  • Are there specific behaviors, results, projects, goals, etc. that I should write about?


Had all this information been provided upfront it would do two things:

First, it would save me time writing the recommendation. Second, it would help me write a more detailed, more personalized recommendation.

I'm not writing this post to admonish someone for not including this info in their request. I was more than happy to write a recommendation. But the easier you can make it on the people you ask to be professional references or to write recommendation letters, the better results you'll get. 

This is especially true if you're asking someone who gets a lot of requests. You want your request to go to the top of the pile and get the most effort. One way to do this is make sure you're following the best practices and giving enough context that your references doesn't need to research on their own. 

Hope this helps! If you have career questions you'd like advice on, don't be shy!

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