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How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

college application
career planning
By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on July 1, 2021

Letters of recommendation play an important role in the application process for universities, internships, and even for jobs. Here’s how to ask for letters of recommendation that will help you build your career in the US.

A young woman with glasses shakes hands with someone off camera as she requests a letter of recommendation to study in the USA

When international students apply to a US university, the application process may require letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are written statements from an individual with authority who can speak about your personal qualities, skills, strengths, academic abilities, and/or professional accomplishments. They are often confidential, meaning the letter writer will send them directly to your potential university or employer. The main purpose of a letter of recommendation is to give a university or an employer a detailed view of who you are as a person, in addition to your achievements and qualifications.

Alongside your application and interview, letters of recommendation help universities and employers determine whether you are a good fit for the program or job you are applying for — as well as a good fit within their institution or organization.

Letters of recommendation are an important part of starting your journey in the US and working toward your future career. Read on to learn more about when you might need letters of recommendation, who you can get them from, how you should ask for one, and what they need to include. 

When Do You Need a Letter of Recommendation?

When applying to US universities, you will see in each school’s application requirements whether letters of recommendation are necessary or optional. 

Most US programs ask for up to two letters of recommendation, but technical programs like engineering may require three or more. Most undergraduate programs do not require a recommendation letter, but many graduate programs require one or more. If you are interested in applying for a graduate degree in biology or chemistry, for example, your university may require subject-specific letters of recommendation to demonstrate your knowledge or experience in the field. 

When applying for a scholarship, you may also be asked for a letter of recommendation. Similar to graduate program admissions, many of these programs are designed for students focusing on specific fields, so it can be helpful to get a recommendation letter from someone who has experience in that field. For example, if you wanted to apply for a mathematics scholarship, getting a letter of recommendation from a former math teacher or tutor could help you stand out from other candidates.

Internship hiring managers also may ask for letters of recommendation as part of your application to determine if you would be a good fit for their organization. 

When you begin applying for jobs with senior positions and responsibilities, you may be required to provide a recommendation letter along with your resume and other supporting documents. Just like in other cases, a career-focused recommendation letter should come from an individual with authority or experience in the industry, who can speak to the strengths you will bring to the role and the larger organization overall.  

Who Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

As letters of recommendation should have detailed information about professional or academic work you have done, it is important to choose someone who has experience working with you or teaching you. Remember that the person you select should have the necessary authority or position to verify your qualifications and experiences. Additionally, because letters of recommendation are often confidential (meaning you will not get a chance to review them before they are sent to your university or employer), be sure to ask someone you trust will represent you as an attractive candidate. 

In the US, it is not appropriate to ask close relations such as your friends, family, partner, or people you do not know very well for letters of recommendation. 

If you have work experience, the ideal person to ask is a previous or current employer, such as your manager, supervisor, or colleagues with senior roles. (This may be more appropriate if you are interested in an academic program, rather than a new job — unless your supervisors and colleagues are aware you are looking for new roles!) With their experience of working with you, they should be familiar with your skills and able to showcase them in the letter. For students without work experience, ask your teachers, school counselors, or advisors, or the leader of an organization you participate in, such as a student club. If you have completed any previous internships or volunteer work, you could also ask the person who supervised you at that time. 

When applying for a graduate program, you can ask your previous professors or lecturers for a letter of recommendation for your master’s degree.

Always consider the field, the role, or the scholarship to determine who is most appropriate to ask for a recommendation. What may work well in one situation may not for another. For a religious scholarship, for instance, a member of the clergy could be a good reference for a letter of recommendation, whereas for a job application that same person may not make sense. If you are applying for an athletic-focused role, a former coach would be ideal for a recommendation letter. Just as organizations are looking for the right fit, you want to find the right fit for your letter writer.

How Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

When asking for a letter of recommendation, remember to be courteous and clear when you first get in touch. Most importantly, once your reference has agreed to help, make sure they have all the information they need to prepare your letter.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when asking for letters of recommendation:

  • Ask early: It is important to respect the writer’s time and schedule, so be sure to ask for your letter as soon as you can. By asking a few weeks in advance, they will have time to prepare a well-written and thoughtful letter.

  • Inform the writer of everything that is expected: Make sure you explain all the necessary details, such as what you are applying for, your long-term goals at the university or job, the due date for the letter, and what the letter needs to include. This makes it easy for them to understand what to discuss in the letter and the areas they should emphasize.

  • Offer the option to decline: Some people may not feel comfortable writing letters of recommendation or may be too busy, so remember to make it easy for them to decline if they need to. This keeps your relationship positive, and opens up the possibility that they may write a letter for you in the future.

  • Thank the writer: When your writer lets you know that the letter of recommendation has been sent to your university or employer, remember to always send a thank you note. As you may need other letters of recommendation in the future, it is important to stay in good standing with the writer.

For each program or opportunity you pursue, carefully consider your options for references and choose the person with the most suitable background and relationship with you. If your reference has not written a letter of recommendation before, it may be helpful to provide some examples or tips about what to include in the letter.

What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?

Depending on what is being applied for, a letter of recommendation should create a clear, positive, and truthful overview of your journey as a student or professional. 

While the exact content should always link to the specific program or role, here are some common areas a letter of recommendation should include:

  • An introduction from the writer: The first paragraph should convey who the writer is and communicate clearly how they know the applicant and for how long. The writer should also mention their role at the time they worked with or taught the applicant, as this highlights their authority.

  • Character details: The letter should provide information about who the applicant is as a person, such as their work ethic, commitment, and overall behavior. Many universities and employers view letters of recommendation as opportunities to determine whether the applicant will be a good fit in their department or office culture or community.

  • Accomplishments: An honest evaluation of the applicant’s accomplishments in school or at their previous job helps emphasize their skills and contributions. Specific examples of the applicant’s past achievements showcase their capabilities and problem-solving skills.

  • Why the writer recommends the applicant: In the conclusion of the letter, the writer can include a summary outlining why they recommend the applicant for the program or role, linking their skills with the requirements of the program or job to highlight that they are a good fit.

Tips and Advice about Letters of Recommendation

Here are some additional tips for you and your references to consider:

  • Letters of recommendation should be unique and tailored to the specific program or job. Your letter writer should not reuse the same letter of recommendation format and content from previous requests or for multiple opportunities.

  • Give your writer a copy of the job posting or program details so they can link your skills with the requirements and showcase your compatibility.

  • Ask your reference to discuss your unique, remarkable, and rare achievements or experiences, rather than a wide variety of skills and experiences.

  • If appropriate, you may consider a polite request that your letter writer proofread their letter before sending to make sure it is free of spelling and grammatical errors. Letters of recommendation are just as important as resumes and should be treated with the same care to make the letter more professional.

With a well-written letter of recommendation, you can stand out among other applicants and access better programs and job opportunities. Good luck!

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