Top 5 Tips for Recommendation Letters
The Tradition of Asking
Asking for a reference letter may seem overwhelming and even frightening, perhaps because we do not know how the person asked will react - or even if that person will "get it right" in the letter. It can be nerve wracking.
In the professional world, these requests are very common, really and usually expected by superiors as you progress in your career. Usually, they are happy to comply and will ask you what to include to show you in the best light. As you progress, you will ask for letters and people will ask you for letters. This is customary and usual and your requests should be granted and even welcomed.
How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
The specific people you ask for a recommendation will likely feel compliance to be a responsibility and even an honor. When they provide you with a good reference letter, they provide a positive image of their own leadership in your accomplishments.
Even if you are leaving your job on not-so-good terms, you may still be able to get a reference letter. You probably did something right on the job - don't you think? - but, maybe the job is just not for you. This happens. Your employer should recognize that and help you move on and this is a good refection on his or her leadership skills as well.
Knowing how, when, and whom to ask for a recommendation is important.
Do not ask just anyone in the office, especially a coworker that is unfamiliar with your job duties and your work, or even your best friend at work; interviewers want to see something more objective and authoritative. Ask a supervisor or your boss.
If a person you ask feels uncomfortable about writing a recommendation, it can be awkward for you and him/her. When you ask, make sure it is someone that will write positive comments. Say something like, “Do you think we have worked closely and well enough together for you to write me a good reference letter?” If you ask someone that you know well for a letter, this should be an easy question and leave him or her with the opportunity to decline as well. A strong letter is better than a mediocre or bad letter - however, in the 21st Century in America, bad reference letters can open possibilities for law suits, so the point is moot - you'll probably receive a good one or none at all.
Example: I asked a coworker and supervisor for a reference letter once and this person wrote the whole letter about herself! I never saw the letter because it went straight to the new employer, who showed it to me. I was completely surprised by this. As it was revealed, the writer wanted the job herself and was not qualified, so the employer dismissed the letter as a freak incident and did not blame me. I was thankful. I have always been careful about asking for these letters since then and I write outstanding letters for people myself, or I won’t write them at all.
Whom to Ask
The ideal recommendation letter writer should have good knowledge about you as an individual. They should know what goes into writing a good recommendation letter. If you have been asked to turn in more than one recommendation letter, try for letters about different parts of your life: a professional letter, an academic letter, volunteer letter, and a character letter should together highlight all your major accomplishments. Do not forget to get a job-related letter from a current or former boss.
What to Include
A good reference letter needs specifics relevant to your new job. It helps to remind the reader of your accomplishments, so give a list of them to the writer. You should also let them know where the letter is being sent. The letter reader will be looking for proof of like accomplishments, punctuality, leadership, and the ability to get along with coworkers and supervisors.
Sometimes, a letter writer will ask you to write the letter and they will sign it. However, it is really better for them to write it with your input and know what is on the page, because HR departments often call the letter writers and ask them about the information to
- Have a better understanding of you and your relationship with him or her as the letter writer, and
- Make sure that the letter is real.
When to Ask
As you leave a job, ask your manager or supervisor for a recommendation letter the week before you go. As time progresses, it becomes harder to track down people for letters and they may be less inclined to write. The same applies to instructors' and professors’ recommendations upon graduating from college and high school. Ask your professors a few weeks before you graduate.
Keep copies of the letters digitally or in a hard copy file if you receive these letters directly. During your career, you can amass a robust series of references. People may ask that you to send a letter - or have one sent - directly to their attention at their address, but having a file of letters is always a good idea. You can give employers copies of general reference letters addressed To Whom It May Concern or Dear Potential Employers.
What to Give the Person that Writes the Letter
Make sure to give the recommendation letter writer a good list of specific accomplishments that you have made that they may recall and are familiar with. Sit down with them and discuss it, if necessary. The list will help them remember and make their letter strong. You should also send them a copy of your resume so that they can target the letter toward your career field. Also, give them an addressed, self-stamped envelope so they can easily send the letter without extra work and expense.
Make sure to thank the letter writer verbally and with a written note. This will ensure that you can keep them as a good business contact, as well as just plain good manners.
© 2007 Patty Inglish MS