A grad student asking for a letter of recommendation
Enrollment Tips

Get the Best Out of Your Letter of Recommendation

By The Room 241 Team September 8, 2011

Letters of recommendation are a cornerstone of the college or job application process, whether you’re an undergraduate or a graduate student, chances are you need at least one glowing letter of recommendation (LoR) to include with your application.

Admission offices depend on recommendation letters to gain insight into each applicants’ strengths and accomplishments. Transcripts and previous coursework can’t provide the same insights that a real “testimonial” can, so recommendations can really help you stand out and showcase who you are through an accurate and detailed letter.

Acquiring a solid letter of recommendation doesn’t need to be daunting. Here are three steps to increase your chances of getting a great letter of recommendation. 

Choose your recommender

The most important step to getting a good LoR is not the request — it is choosing the right person to ask. It may seem simple, but you need to ensure that whomever you ask will have good things to say about you. Your recommender should know you well and undoubtedly write positively about your professional or personal background. Don’t choose someone who really doesn’t know you well, and don’t choose someone you think may write negatively (or even neutrally) about you. Choose from the people in your life who you are confident will put you in a positive light. Choosing relatives, or friends who have never worked with you professionally or academically, is generally discouraged — the letter should be from someone who cannot be perceived as biased.

Think about who you’ve cultivated close working relationships with throughout your academic/professional career or someone you’ve worked closely with who knows your style, skills, and strengths. Consider what your potential reference could say about your background and their experiences with you before you ask. It can help to make a list of highlights from your relationship to use when you make your request, so write those thoughts down and weave them into your ask!

You don’t have to identify just one potential recommender — think of a list. It’s far better to make three asks and come back with two letters when you only needed one than it is to spend weeks waiting for a letter that doesn’t end up coming through when you need it. 

Make your ask

Each and every request for a letter of recommendation should be thoughtful and personal. The following framework allows you to create an ask that is perfect for your relationship with the potential recommender that you’ve identified. 

  1. Everyone likes to be appreciated, so you should start by acknowledging how much you’ve enjoyed your relationship — a little bit of flattery can go a long way. A couple of phrases you could use to get started: 
    • I learned so much from you when we worked together.
    • I really enjoyed working with you at <FILL IN THE BLANK>.
    • You’ve been such a wonderful mentor to me. 
  1. Make the ask. This will be different, depending on what you’re being recommended for. What are you asking for help in achieving? Examples:
    • As you may know, I am hoping to become an educator, so I am applying to MAT programs to earn my teaching certificate. As part of the admission process, I need letters of recommendation from former co-workers. 
    • I have decided to return to graduate school to earn <FILL IN THE BLANK> degree. I am writing to you today to ask for a letter of reference. 
    • I am in the process of applying to graduate programs in <SUBJECT AREA> and a positive reference from you would enhance my prospects of being admitted. 
  1. Mention why you thought the person would be an ideal reference. Examples: 
    • I learned a lot about <SUBJECT AREA> while working with you, and I think you would be able to provide the kind of insight into my skills and experience that would increase my chances of being accepted into <PROGRAM>.
    • As my mentor, I believe that a reference from you would provide the admission team  valuable information about my work ethic and experience. 
    • While I worked for you, I was able to gather valuable experience. 
  1. Then you can briefly mention specific qualities and skills of yours that you would like your reference to mention (refer back to that list of highlights from your relationship that we wrote down in step one!). It’s okay to give them some points so they can write a substantial, convincing recommendation.
    • Remind them of a specific project that you worked on together.
    • Tell them exactly what experience you need to showcase in your letter (e.g. working with children, leading teams, navigating difficult conversations).
  1. Give them a deadline — with plenty of time. We all lead busy lives; asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation is asking someone to craft a document that highlights your strengths. For many people, the letter is not something they dash off but will be thoughtfully mapped out and revised. As a rule, two weeks to prepare a letter should be a minimum.
    • I am hoping to start my graduate program this , so I need to submit my application materials within the next few weeks. Could you provide a letter by ?
    • I need to have letters of reference in hand by so I can complete my application for the start of the program.
  1. And, finally, always give your potential recommender the option of saying “no” or “not now.” They might really want to support you but just can’t help you at this moment, so it’s important to give them a graceful out. Examples:
    • I know it’s the end of the semester, so if you’re too busy to provide a reference, I completely understand.
    • It’s been a few years since we worked together, so if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to my past abilities after so much time, please just let me know.
    • I know you just had a baby (congrats again!), so if you’re just juggling too much right now, let me know.
    • I completely understand if you are unable to commit to this. Please just let me know as soon as possible.

In some cases, your potential recommender may say no or that they can only write a recommendation citing certain qualifiers or weaknesses. Accept their feedback graciously, and move on to ask another potential recommender.

Once someone has agreed to create that letter of recommendation, it must be proofread. If they can show you the letter, you can check for grammatical errors and make sure the letter is sufficient for your needs. If the letter needs to be submitted directly, kindly ask the author to review it multiple times to check for grammatical errors. Offer to help them in any way you can — they are doing you a big favor.

Say thank you

After receiving the recommendation, send the author a thank you expressing your appreciation for their guidance and support. A nice email can be sufficient but think about putting in a little extra effort and sending them a handwritten thank you note to really show how much their recommendation meant to you.

When you finish submitting your application, update your recommenders on your progress and inform them whether you are accepted or where you chose to attend. This kind of follow-up communication will continue to foster a close, positive relationship so you can always call on them again if you need another recommendation in the future.

So to recap: Identify someone who really knows you (but isn’t related to you), ask politely and give them plenty of time, help them work out what should go in the letter to make it strong, and don’t ever forget to thank your recommender!

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