How to ask for a letter of recommendation in these 3 major situations

Whether you’re applying for a job, school, internship, or even something as pedestrian as an apartment lease, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked for some sort of reference. So what’s the best way to secure a referee to write you a letter of recommendation?

It’s a tricky subject with no perfect answers, but there are some general rules to follow when reaching out to someone in the hopes they’ll write you a glowing letter of support. Here’s a guide on how to ask for a letter of recommendation in these 3 major situations: When you need a reference from a professor, an employer, or from a relative or friend.

Asking for a letter of recommendation from a professor

To get an expert’s firsthand insights regarding academic reference requests, I reached out to Amy McMillan, Professor, and Director of the Muriel A. Howard Honors Program at Buffalo State College.

One of Dr. McMillan’s first pieces of advice was that students should meet face-to-face to request a recommendation letter if they’re not well acquainted with the professor. Otherwise, an email request is typically okay. Dr. McMillan stressed to always give at least two weeks’ notice—requests on shorter notice than this are more likely to be denied since they show a lack of consideration for the referee’s time.

Other tips included that requesters should always remember to say please, follow up with thank-yous, and be courteous even if the recommendation request is refused. Dr. McMillan also encouraged asking the potential referee point-blank “would you be willing and able to write an excellent letter of recommendation for me?”—”excellent” being the operative word in that sentence. She explained: if they hesitate, they’re probably not the best person to go with. And don’t think about applying to something and including a potential reference’s name and contact info without telling them at all—Dr. McMillan had this warning to share:

“If I get a request for a recommendation and a student hasn’t actually asked me, I ignore it. If I get a phone call for a recommendation and a student hasn’t asked me, I tell the person who is asking—this looks pretty bad to the potential employer/advisor/name the position.”

She advised picking a referee familiar with your skills in whichever area the letter needs to be optimized for. Giving your letter writer all the info he or she needs to write a targeted letter is essential, as well. Provide them with stamped envelope with an address if it needs to be mailed, explain who they’re writing the letter for, discuss pertinent accomplishments that should be in the letter—give your referee all the details they need to knock your recommendation letter out of the park.

I asked Dr. McMillan if she felt there should be a difference in approach when a student asks for a letter of recommendation from a professor after they’ve graduated from college, as well as whether she thought it was ever too late to ask for a recommendation from a professor. Her response:

“Not really—after graduation is usually an email or phone call, that is fine. But you should ask before you go! Even if you don’t need a letter then! It is too late if you have had significant achievements after school that I won’t know about. Or if the job really no longer connects with where you were in my class. If a student worked closely with me in my lab, it usually never is too late—they essentially worked with me as a job… There are times when it is never too late—a government job often needs a background check.”


She also felt there wasn’t a need to differentiate recommendation letter request approaches depending on what the request was for—be it something scholastic like a scholarship or class admissions letter, an internship, or a job, the key steps remained consistent: provide context and relevant details, give advance notice, and show gratitude from start to finish.


Asking for a letter of recommendation from an employer

Asking for a letter of recommendation from an employer can be straightforward, as long as you’re smart about it. First, figure out if you’re going to be requesting a letter from a previous employer or a current one. If the former, simply ask to meet them in person for a coffee, or set up a call—email can be okay as well, though this works better as a follow-up to a verbal discussion, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while. As long as you’re getting a good vibe from them, it’s safe to ask for a letter of recommendation. It’s that simple! And there’s always a chance the person will ask you to write your own letter so they can just sign it, so be ready for that.

As for asking a current employer for a reference, consider your options. If you report to multiple people, figure out whose background or position lends them the most legitimacy for the purposes of your letter. Once that’s decided, determine which individual is most likely to write an out-of-this-world letter for you. The key is hitting that sweet spot between them loving you and having the credentials to write a winning letter. As mentioned in their guide on the subject (and our own interview above reiterated), it’s necessary to chat with whomever you’re targeting for a letter so you can provide them with context and find out if they have any objections or questions about being a referee.

If the letters don’t need to be sent directly to wherever you’re applying and you’re able to check them first, consider asking more than one person to write a letter and then submit whichever one is strongest. Don’t mention this plan to anyone, of course, and only do it if whatever you’re applying to is of major significance to you, since you’ll be burning through more referees than necessary. And be sure to send a sincere thank-you note to everyone who wrote you a letter.

Also, don’t exhaust a single referee by using them too often. If you have a choice of employers to choose from, rotate through them depending on how important the request is. Save the all-star referees for the biggest occasions. Forbes’ repost of a LearnVest article by Meghan Rabbitt takes this piece of advice a step further, employing the wisdom of seasoned headhunter Jim Giammatteo with the suggestion that no referee should be used more than three times ever.

Asking for a letter of recommendation from a family member or friend

Sometimes, a standard recommendation letter won’t cut it. Depending on what kind of application you’re filling out, be it for an apartment lease or elite fellowship, certain case-specific contexts require a character reference, i.e. a letter from someone who knows you intimately and can speak to your character.

While this someone can usually be an employer or professor who knows you well, you may want to save those individuals for work and school-related recommendation needs. Or you may not have contacts in those two categories. Either way, your best bet will be to turn to friends and family for a heartwarming, mountain-moving letter of recommendation.

How to ask a friend or family member is the easiest of the three situations in this how-to, because odds are you’re closer to them than anyone else. Therefore, it’s easy to ask for a favor. Just be smart about your selection process—if you have a relative or pal with some prestige to their name, especially if said prestige relates directly to whatever you’re applying to, they should be a priority. For example, if you’re applying to a writing fellowship and your uncle is a famous novelist who adores you, he might be a particularly good candidate for a personal letter of recommendation.

Otherwise, narrow down your selection pool to friends and family who possess two key traits: an unshakeable respect for you and willingness to assist you, and good writing skills. If they can sing your praises as genuinely as humanly possible and write a grammatically perfect, poetic letter in your favor, odds are you’ll be set. Bonus points if their career backdrop or life experience makes them an expert in a certain field related to whatever you need the reference for. Just be sure to not whip out personal references when an academic or professional reference would be better suited—they’ll reek of bias if used inappropriately, so know when it’s the right time to ask for a boss’s recommendation versus a brother-in-law’s.