Professional Resume Writer, Career Writer and Career Coach
When the job board you subscribe to finally posts your dream job, you may feel like the stars have aligned. But part of securing a position that matches your career plan is ensuring you address all the application basics. You know, the resume, the cover letter, the portfolio. It seems like you’ve got this in the bag — until you realize they want a letter of recommendation, too!
Below, we’ll discuss how to ask for a letter of recommendation that speaks volumes, a letter that gives you that extra bump over the competition. Keep reading for quick tips and two templates to help make this task feel less overwhelming.
What is a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is quite literally a letter from a previous employer (or, for younger applicants, a recent teacher or professor) describing you, your skills, and your best professional attributes to a prospective program or employer. Usually, these letters are written by people who have worked closely with you and can vouch for your abilities.
Sending a thoughtful letter of recommendation helps your application stand out among the others — even if a letter wasn’t required. (More on this later.)
Letter of Recommendation vs. References
Letters of recommendation and references are not the same. For one, letters of recommendation are more specific and customized — they are usually addressed to a specific person regarding a specific role. They’re detailed and semi-formal. References, on the other hand, are a list of professional or personal contacts who are available to speak about your skills and attributes, usually via phone.
Giving references is often the final step in landing a new gig. Hiring managers may ask to speak with direct supervisors only. Still, many decision-makers are also interested in hearing from customers, co-workers, and other informal relationships — basically, anyone who can offer astute insights during a brief phone call.
Letters of recommendation and references often complement each other, and when leveraged during the interview process, they can offer a 360-degree view of you.
Why Do You Need a Letter of Recommendation For?
A well-constructed letter of recommendation helps cosign your reputation. You’ll usually need one of these letters if you are:
- Applying for a new job and want to highlight transferable skills and abilities.
- Targeting a promotion and need to stand out among other candidates.
- Embarking on a career transition (such as going from employee to freelancer).
- Applying for junior roles, internships, or academic fields.
These docs help you make a memorable first impression, so send them to potential employers as an additional attachment with your application.
Should You Submit One Even If It’s Not Mandatory/Asked For?
Outside of academia, letters of recommendation are usually not mandatory. In fact, you’re more likely to fork over a list of references than a letter. But when have you ever been one to skate by doing just the bare minimum? Even if the job ad doesn’t ask for a letter, we recommend sending one for good measure. Similar to going above and beyond with unique cover letters, letters of recommendation can elevate you above the competition.
We rarely characterize job searching as a personalized endeavor. It’s hard for hiring managers to get a sense of the person behind the digital resume copy. A letter of recommendation is one surefire way to position yourself as a “must interview” candidate.
How To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation to End Up Getting It
If you’ve ever asked for a recommendation on LinkedIn, then you’ll understand how to ask for a letter of recommendation. The process — while simple — requires a little finesse to get the outcome you desire.
Make Your List
Consider who in your network is most qualified to write you a letter of recommendation. Make a list of 5 to 10 potential people who know you well (no second or third connection LinkedIn followers here).
How to Determine Whom to Ask For?
Be careful not to request too much of any one person. We recommend looking beyond your references when thinking about who to ask for a letter.
Aiming for the big wigs is not always better, either. Choose people who actually know your work. The most effective letters are specific and personal. While friends and family can usually nail the personal aspect, they are less likely to understand the inner workings of your career and what you’re best at, which could have the opposite effect.
Ask Early, Give Them Enough Time
Asking for something that only benefits you can feel a little intimidating, but you’ll find that most people are willing to do this for you! Just make sure you are considerate of their time. Your colleagues may feel added pressure or stress if you ask them for a letter due in 48 hours. Instead, give them some time to consider your request and craft a thoughtful, detailed letter.
Talk Directly or Send an Email
While in-person interactions are preferred, today’s remote work culture could make face-to-face requests difficult. In this case, type up a professional email that outlines the details and deadlines they can refer back to as needed. We’ve included a few email templates below to help you craft an email that will actually get you the letter.
A Little Flattery Can Help
As with most things in life, a little flattery doesn’t hurt. But make it genuine and show a little restraint. A simple sentence or two that states how much you’ve enjoyed working with them, what their guidance meant to you, and how much you value their opinion will likely do the trick.
Provide Necessary Documents & Details
Whether you ask in person or by email, always follow up with all the details they’ll need to write an impactful letter. This includes:
- your most recent resume
- a link (or PDF) to the job ad
- who to address the letter to
- the deadline
- any specific skills or qualities
Give Them a Way Out
As much as you’d like to force their hand, your references are under no real obligation to write you a letter. Make sure they know this by giving your contact an easy way to decline your request. If they feel forced or rushed, you could end up with a half-hearted letter, which does more harm than good.
Most importantly, don’t forget to send thank you notes to each individual who wrote a letter for you. Writing these docs requires a level of effort that you should acknowledge and appreciate. Also, if you get the job, make sure to follow up with a big “thank you” for their contributions. If you’re in the position to do so, ask how you can return the favor.
Additional Tips for You
While the outlined approach above works for most requests, you’ll want to customize your ask according to your situation. Here are a few additional tips for how to get a letter of recommendation.
- An email thank you note is fine, but a hand-written thank you note is more thoughtful.
- Sometimes, providing a sample letter of recommendation can help your reference envision what you expect.
- Make your request as detailed as possible, so the information in the letter corroborates what’s on your resume. Inconsistent information can cause companies to withdraw your application.
Asking for Letter of Recommendation – Email Templates
Reaching out to someone you used to work with:
Hi [Name], I hope you're having a great start to your year and that all is well with you in North Carolina! [Additional small talk sentence that ties your relationship together…] I'm reaching out to ask if you'd be willing to write me a letter of recommendation. I'm hoping to highlight my ability to look at data sets, quickly analyze the numbers, and then present strategies and recommendations to others. I'm considering transitioning into a marketing communications role, and most of my target employers emphasize research and communication skills. We worked so closely on the [important project/company/department], and I still implement some of the strategies you taught me today. I thought you would be the best person to ask to speak on my behalf. Thank you so much if you're willing, and let me know if I may return the favor.
Reaching out to a mentor/coach/friend:
Hey there, [Name], I hope you're well. I'm in the process of applying to [company name] and want to ask if you feel comfortable writing me a letter of recommendation in the coming weeks. You've been so instrumental in my growth as a [job title/industry], and when I think of those who know my heart, ethics, and abilities, you are the first to come to mind. I would appreciate any words about how I tackle project deadlines or communicate with colleagues. This new role values autonomy and experience in [related skill, experience, qualification]. I've attached an updated version of my resume and a link to the job ad. Thank you for considering my request. Please let me know if you have any questions. PS: [a sentence about something personal to them (e.g., Congrats on your recent promotion at [company].)