5 Rules for Requesting Recommendation Letters

Dec 27, 2018

By Deborah Vieyra

While you’ve managed to work out what you will say about yourself in your personal statement, the thought of getting others to speak about you is perhaps a little more daunting. Asking for recommendation letters can run you through the whole gamut of emotions — from feeling completely intimidated to downright awkward. In what other situation in life do you have to ask other people to compose a letter telling other people about what they think about you?

Before we get to the 5 Rules for Requesting Recommendation Letters, I have somewhat of a pre-rule, and this is it: try not to stress. Many people in positions of authority, particularly in the academic sector, are used to being asked to stand as referees. It is not an unusual request and is a necessary part of the application process for university, fellowship and job applications. Having said that, it does require some energy and commitment on the part of the referee and should not be taken for granted.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at the rules for how best to go about acquiring this all-important component of your application.

#1 Give your referee an out

Here’s the reality — most people you ask for a reference letter will say yes. While this is of course positive for you, it’s important that you are aware that this means they are sacrificing time (that they might not have) to assist you. Everyone is busy with both personal and professional obligations. Finding the gaps to fit in composing reference letters is not always the easiest of tasks. Your job is to relieve the pressure. Ensure that you ask your potential referees in a way that allows them an out. Don’t make them feel obligated. Allow them the opportunity to say no if they need to. They will appreciate that you are not trying to bulldoze them into fulfilling your request. The result is that they are more likely to enthusiastically say yes and will have an even more positive perspective of you when they compile your reference letter.

#2 Give at least 3 weeks notice

Don’t ever put anyone if the situation where they have to rush to compose a reference letter at the last minute. Not only will this put undue pressure on your referee, but will also mean they will simply not be able to put the time and effort in that an effectual letter requires. Give them enough leeway by notifying them at least three weeks before the application deadline. That way you will not be pressuring yourself nor them into meeting impossible deadlines.

#3 Provide supporting documents

Don’t make your referee complete this task all on their own. Help them draft your letter by providing them with an outline of all of the relevant information that they might need to do so. Draft bullet points for them to work from based on reference points like these:

  • Your accomplishments
  • Projects you’ve led or contributed to
  • Demonstration of your interest in the discipline or focus area of the fellowship
  • Your communication skills, both verbal and written
  • Your commitment to your line of work

Remember as you go to cater your answers to the kind of referee you are requesting a letter from. Are they likely to focus on your extracurricular activities, academics or community engagement? Formulate your notes accordingly.

#4 Express humility and gratitude

No matter how well you know your referee, thank them profusely. Make sure that you know how much effort it takes to compose references letters and that you are extremely grateful for their efforts. Regardless of their position, never assume that they owe you a reference letter. They are doing you a favor by assisting you, and you should thank them accordingly.

#5 Send a friendly reminder

As the deadline approaches, you may get anxious about whether your referees will submit their letters in time. Don’t leave it to the night before to remind them. By sending a gentle reminder two weeks before the deadline, you give them enough time to compose their letters in way that does not make them feel rushed. Remember again that you will be competing with their often very tight schedules. Understand that you are just one element that they have to fit into their timelines.

Good luck! Your recommendation letters are an integral part of a successful application. Ensure that you put the time in to getting the best letters you are able to get — and don’t forget to give thanks to those who provide them for you.

Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.