For many, attempting to get someone to write a letter of recommendation for school or a new job can be an extremely intimidating experience. Especially for those who fear rejection, don’t easily accept compliments, or just don’t like tooting their own horn.
However, like filling out an application or writing a resume, getting someone to write a letter of recommendation is a process. If you follow a few basic steps, it should actually end up being one of the easier and most effective ways to help you achieve your ultimate goal – getting into school or getting hired.
1. Decide whom you want to write the letter
A lot depends on how many letters of recommendation you need and how much time you have. If you need three letters or more, it’s best to throw out a wider net. If you only need one letter, focus on the one person who will do the best job.
The best types of people to approach have several good qualities, the most important being the ability to communicate effectively. Even if the person is respected in their field and appreciates your work, it won’t help you if you know their letter-writing skills would probably be poor.
Besides making sure that the person likes you and is willing to put in the time to help you succeed, the people you choose to ask to write a letter on your behalf would preferably be in a position of power, such as a person who oversaw you for a significant period of time (a year or more is optimal) — a former manager or professor, for instance. Getting a letter of recommendation from a family friend or colleague isn’t useless, but won’t carry the same weight as someone who routinely evaluated your performance.
Also, choose someone you know will have a relatively easy time remembering you. When it comes to school, choose professors from classes where you participated in discussions and visited him or her frequently during office hours if at all possible. For work references, choose people who’ll remember you as a strong contributor in meetings, who wasn’t simply happy to perform busy work. You will want to be remembered for strong ideas and dedication to your craft.
2. Contact the people you’ve decided would do the best job
This seems obvious, but can be a tough point to hurdle in the process if it’s been a long time since you’ve been in touch. Contact them in person or via telephone if possible, as it’s generally tougher for people to say no when actually speaking with you.
If it’s a former professor whose information you’ve lost, contact the school. Often they’ll have forwarding information for past professors. If that doesn’t work, or you’re trying to contact someone you worked with who has since changed jobs, Google them. You’d be surprised how easy it is to find people these days with an Internet connection and a search engine.
3. Make the letter writer’s job easier
Getting someone to write a letter of recommendation for you is essentially selling yourself to someone in order to get him or her to sell you to someone else. With any sales job, it’s best to make it as easy as possible for your client — the person writing the letter — to say yes.
Just asking someone to write a letter for you is not the way to go. While the person you ask may have written several before, they’re undoubtedly busy and don’t want to spend hours thinking of what to write. Before contacting to the person, have a list of accomplishments you’d like to highlight. Examples include projects you received a good grade on in school if you’re speaking with a professor, or important accomplishments at work you received praised for.
Be polite, and if the person agrees, shower them with appreciation. You want the person writing this letter to be enthusiastic about you and what you represent.
4. Send the letter writer everything they need
Whether you’re asking for a letter on the phone, in person, or via email, let him or her know that you’d be happy to send a list of talking points in a separate email if necessary, such as your creativity, or how much colleagues admired your personality and work ethic. Don’t be bashful — this is the time to really sell YOU.
Finally, if the person has agreed to write you a letter of recommendation, let them know you will be sending them an envelope addressed to where it needs to go with a stamp or two included. (Most institutions want the letter to come straight from the source, so there’s no chance of the applicant tampering with what’s written.) You’re asking someone to do you a huge favor. The least you can do is provide the address and pay for a new envelope and postage.
Like most things in life, getting someone to write a letter of recommendation is something that is done best after a lot of preparation. While it can be seen as a necessary evil in many cases, it can be useful to do some reflection and figure out exactly what your strengths are. After all, once you realize how great you are, it will be that much easier to convince someone to write a letter saying it for you.