Asking for a letter of reference

It is that time of year when many students are asking for letters of reference.  To be honest, the ‘season’ of requesting letters of recommendation seems to be nonstop.  This post is about how to request such letters from your teachers, instructors, or work superiors.

First, let me start by saying this:  you may be thinking right now “I’m not going to need a letter of reference, so this doesn’t apply to me.”  Stop right there.  You must change your outlook.  So many things you may want to do in the near (or distant) future are going to require a letter of reference.  Just what is a letter of reference?  Well, it is formal letter, written by someone (usually a superior of some sort, but sometimes a peer) who knows you well; can vouch for you as an outstanding person; and, someone with a level of authority that their ‘word’ (= letter) means something to the audience (job, scholarship board, graduate school, etc.).  Thus, it is important that in every role of your life (high school, college, job) you learn to develop relationships with people who will be in a position to write for you in the future.  You need to connect with at least one person in your school or your job (or club, team, etc) who will eventually be a good candidate to write a letter of recommendation for you.  This is crucial for future opportunities.

Second, let me move onto proposing some language that you could use to ask for a letter of reference.  I was inspired to write this post because I had a student send me an email asking if I would be “interested in writing a letter of recommendation” on her behalf.  This is a very weird way of asking for a letter.  I am interested in many things (reading, cooking, chances to travel) but writing letters of recommendation aren’t really something I am interested in doing.  Nevertheless, I recognize that it is part of my position and my role as a faculty member.  As such, I often write letters for students and am typically happy to do it for them.

So, how should someone ask for a letter of recommendation?  Ideally, you do the asking in person.  But, if you must send an email, then you might consider putting it quite frankly but politely:  Dear Ms/Mr./Dr/Professor LetterWriter, I am writing to ask if you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?  I am applying to be a Curator at the local nocturnal reptile museum and they have asked for two letters of reference.  The deadline for the letter to be submitted is December 5, 2015.  They have asked that you address the letter to the Director of the Nocturnal Reptile Museum, Mr. Alley Gator; they have also asked that you write the letter on letterhead and sign the envelope across the back after you seal it.  I have an envelope that is already addressed and stamped for your convenience.  If you are willing to write for me, please let me know.  I can drop off the envelope at your earliest convenience.  Thank you very much, sincerely, Student in NeedofLetter

In the above request, you can note some details:  what is the letter for?  When is the letter needed?  Where should it be sent to?  To whom should it be addressed? If you know that particular information is required in the letter, give that information to the person you are requesting the letter from.  The more they know about what information is desired, the better able they are to write a strong letter on your behalf.

Finally, if the person declines to write, accept that.  You do NOT want someone writing a letter on your behalf if they do not really want to do it; the letter will be tepid and weak.  What you want is a strong letter of recommendation.

Remember:  make a connection to a potential letter writer wherever you are!  It will be crucial for the next steps to come in your life — no matter what stage of life you currently find yourself!



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