As college admissions panels and hiring committees sift through hundreds of applications, how will yours stand out? Enter the letter of recommendation. The task of self-evaluation required on a personal essay helps those who decide your fate get a sense of who you think you are, but the recommendation letter helps them gather valuable insights about how others perceive you. This guide takes a look at some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding these important documents, highlights common mistakes and offers valuable resources.
Letters of recommendation are required components for many college applications. They help admissions panels get a more nuanced sense of who the student is, how they relate to others and what values drive them on an everyday basis. They’re also a very commonly requested form of validation for employment, as prospective hirers want to understand how a possible new employee works with others and if they have the dedication, focus and problem-solving skills to be successful in the real world.
A quick note about the differences between letters of recommendation and letters of reference, as students may see both of these terms and be unsure which one they need. While a letter of reference is typically requested by a specific person/college/company and tailored to the information they seek, a letter or reference tends to be a broader, introductory-style letter that touts the great qualities of a person generally. Letters of reference aren’t as common as letters of recommendation, and students typically don’t need them.
The following section takes a look at some of the most common instances of letters of recommendation being requested and why they are important.
At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, letters of recommendation are common because they help those deciding your fate at the school get a better understanding of you that doesn’t revolve around self-advocacy. While your personal statement offers a great glimpse of what you see as your strengths/weaknesses, teachers and mentors can provide an outside, holistic view that’s valuable when assessing your likelihood of success at that school.
Depending on the specific major or how competitive a certain department is, some may require program-specific recommendation letters. For instance, a student applying to the University of Iowa’s highly respected MFA in writing program may be required to have former writing teachers or mentors provide a letter or recommendation that speaks to their particular skills in that area.
Many scholarships require students to demonstrate qualities such as leadership, community service, or advocacy to be considered for an award. Because of this, lots of scholarships request letters or recommendation from supervisors, mentors, teachers or community leaders who can speak to these specific skills and interests.
It’s not unusual for both paid and unpaid internships to ask for letters of recommendation that speak to the specific skills, knowledge, and qualities that a student can bring to the internship. As an example, learners applying to an internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City are required to have two letters of recommendation that highlight their intelligence, skills, sense of responsibility and level of maturity. In especially competitive internships, letters of recommendation are even more common.
Aside from college applications, applying for a job is one of the most common times when letters of recommendation are requested. For newly graduated students, these may come from former teachers/professors or from supervisors of summer positions. As individuals gain more professional experience, these recommendations tend to come from their current place of work, if possible. Letters of recommendation give hiring managers confidence in a potential employee’s abilities while also highlighting specific contributions made to their current company and what they can bring to a future employer.
The business networking platform LinkedIn has a feature that allows users (including those taking advantage of the free version) to ask for endorsements from other professionals they have studied under, interned with or worked for. Once an endorsement request is accepted, the written recommendation shows up on the profile of the endorsee and serves as a public acknowledgment of their accomplishments. Students who use LinkedIn to connect with prospective employers or internship sites can really benefit from this service, as it provides easy access to recruiters looking to get a better sense of how former supervisors and professors feel about their achievements and potential.
Before asking for a letter of recommendation, students should understand exactly what they need from their references to make their applications stand out. Students who start the process early and do their homework have the advantage. Gathering letters of recommendation may be unlike any high school assignment, but teachers, guidance counselors, coaches and other referees are usually more than willing to help learners get into college. Some of the more common questions students have about the process are reviewed below.
Asking someone to write a recommendation requires that person to spend significant time and effort considering your character and accomplishments before putting it to paper. Choosing the right setting and medium for asking is crucial, as it’s important the reference knows you put ample thought into asking them. Avoid asking in the hall between periods and refrain from sending an email. Instead, set up a time to meet with them after class or school and be prepared to clearly ask for what you would like them to do. In addition to coming across as more sincere, it also helps them recognize your seriousness about the process.
According to Going Ivy CEO Erin Goodnow, it’s good to begin the process at least a year before you plan to start college. “By the end of your junior year, you should have identified which teachers you’d like to ask,” she says. “Go ahead and have an initial conversation to say that you’d love it if they’d be willing.” In addition to making contact, Goodnow recommends students to take the lead in making it happen. “Ask if you can schedule a meeting with them to share your resume, goals and anything else they may need to write a great letter,” she suggests. “That meeting can be at the beginning of your senior year or at another time that’s convenient for them.”
Even if you’ve had a professor or mentor who has seen you through numerous years of school, sometimes it’s important to refresh their memories about your accomplishments and share your goals for the future. “It’s important to be thoughtful about what you would like this person to write about,” notes Goodnow. “They will write their own letter, but if you can talk to them about experiences that were meaningful to you during your time together, chances are those were also meaningful to your teacher, coach or whoever your referee is.”
In addition to sharing memories of classes, it’s also important to be specific about what you want conveyed. “Remind them of the details about you that you want shared in the letter,” says Goodlow. “Be brave, be prepared, and stand out to your teacher so his or her letter will stand out to admissions readers or hiring managers.”
When sharing specific details about your accomplishments, grades, community service, or leadership, speak to your referee to find out the best way to provide the information. Some teachers may want paper copies while others are fine with digital versions.
While the initial ask should be done in person, it’s fine to follow-up about your request by sending an email. Depending on your timeline, consider checking in sometimes between the two weeks and one month after you asked and they accepted.
Writing a recommendation letter takes time, especially if you want the referee to have space to thoughtfully consider what you bring to a new school or job. According to Mount Holyoke College’s Career Development Center, it’s also important to give yourself plenty of time if the first person you ask is unable to write it for one reason or another.Having the wrong attitude when asking
“You can be prepared with your resume or activities list when asking a teacher or mentor to write your letter of recommendation,” says Goodnow, “but your excitement and demeanor in the ask can go a long way in making them not just willing to write the letter, but in being enthusiastic while creating it on your behalf.”Not conveying why you chose that person
“It’s so important to use specifics at this point, as the person you’re asking needs to understand how they’ve explicitly helped you prepare to accomplish your goals,” says Goodnow. “If you never liked history until you got into a certain teacher’s U.S. History class, tell her that, and tell her why. A little flattery never hurts, but try to avoid meaningless clichés and be sincere.”
Finding the right person to write your letter of recommendation can have a significant impact in how an admissions panel or hiring committee views your strengths, so it’s important that you spend time thinking about how each person can address what you bring to the table in compelling ways.
Students should also pay attention to the type of reference letters each school wants and find suitable references. “If you plan to major in science, try to ask a science teacher to write a letter,” suggests Goodnow. “Some colleges allow optional letters from coaches, clergy, and others, but make sure these people can share detailed stories about you based on real interaction and insight into your best features.” It’s also important to find people who can speak to your strengths without bias. “A parent or family member isn’t a good person to ask,” notes Goodnow.
Some of the most common letter writers for students include:
These professionals see you multiple times a week and can speak authoritatively about how you’ve changed in their classroom, how you handle challenges and whether or not you have the focus and drive to succeed outside their classrooms.
Because mentors work with you to support growth and development in a particular discipline or character trait over time, these referees have the unique ability to talk about your dedication to personal and professional development and your determination in seeing it through.
Advisors and counselors are people who see your decision-making skills at work. Whether helping you figure out which colleges to apply for or counseling you through a situation at home, they can speak to how you handle stress and whether you have adequate problem-solving skills.
Coaches are the people in students’ lives who see them working under pressure, making quick decisions, and deciding whether or not to give it their all. Though these professionals can’t necessarily speak to their academic abilities, they’re a great option for schools that require character references.
Depending on the situation, coworkers can be a great option for writing a letter of recommendation as they have the opportunity to see you on a daily basis and observe your work habits. Unlike academic or administrative staff, they can also speak to your professionalism and real-world work skills. A word of caution: if your current job doesn’t know that you’re planning to leave, asking a coworker could put their job in jeopardy, so think about those ramifications and talk to them before deciding whether or not they’re a good fit.
Especially when applying for a new job, current bosses can be an invaluable voice to a hiring panel since they know exactly how that person behaves in a professional setting. Aside from speaking to their everyday skills and strengths, these individuals can also provide a fair assessment of whether the potential hire is ready to take on extra responsibilities. But like coworkers, you need to consider if your current boss will be willing to provide a recommendation given that you’re leaving the company.
Even if you don’t have a co-worker or boss to speak to your experiences, often volunteers supervisors can fill that same role by speaking to how students carry themselves professionally and what values they bring from the classroom to real-world settings.
When requesting a letter of recommendation from an academic or professional source, remember that all are not created equally. Just because you meet the recommendation letter requirements on paper doesn’t mean that the letter best represents your accomplishments and potential. According to Going Ivy CEO Erin Goodnow, the one thing that makes a few letters of recommendation stand out from the thousands she has read is the use of details.
“A letter of recommendation will do absolutely nothing to help you – that is, if it’s totally generic,” she notes. “But then, if you can be described by someone else with enthusiasm and real stories that show your best characteristics, a letter of recommendation can help you stand out from the crowd of college or job applicants.”
Other components that separate a good letter of recommendation from a great one include:
“Asking a big-wig who barely knows you and doesn’t have the insight to write a great letter isn’t going to help you very much,” says Goodnow. The best letters of recommendation are written by individuals who have seen you grow and mature over time and can speak to your evolution across a specific timespan. Ideally, you’ll have known your referees for at least two years before asking them to help you.
“In a particularly memorable recommendation letter, one recommender wrote, ‘Daphne makes things happen,’” remembers Goodnow. “He went on to describe how this student is not only hard-working, but also creative and thoughtful, and came up with the idea to deliver surprise care packages to people in her community – getting a list of members, writing the cards, delivering weekly and executing every aspect with leadership and joy.”
Rather than simply saying you’re a great student, teachers who really want to help you stand out can contextualize that statement a bit more. Some may note that you’re in the top 10 percent of learners they’ve come across, while others might point to you as one of the best five students they’ve ever taught. This type of recognition is especially poignant when coming from someone with many years of classroom experience.
The benefits of including information about goals in a recommendation letter are twofold. First, it shows you have communicated with your recommender about what you hope to accomplish and that you have a clear sense of how to make it happen. Second, it gives the writer the chance to comment on those goals specifically and discuss why they think you’re ready for the next step.
WBUR radio makes available both this helpful list and an audio interview with a director of college counseling.
From Khan Academy, a short video on recommendation letters featuring the assistant director of undergraduate admissions from Yale University.
Huffington Post offers sage advice of what not to do when seeking these all-important documents.
CollegeBoard answers common questions about this process, including when its appropriate to ask, who should be asked, and how to go about getting the best letters of recommendation.
The Balance provides this helpful article for students who aren’t quite sure how to structure their request for a letter of recommendation.
Mount Holyoke College’s Career Development Center put together this list of frequently asked questions to guide students through the process of gathering recommendation letters.
CollegeBoard pulled together a helpful list of things for teachers to consider and ask their students for when writing a recommendation for them.
The Balance helps students and recent graduates figure how out how and who to ask for a solid recommendation letter.
A professor at the University of Houston wrote this helpful guide on what learners should provide and questions that writers of recommendations may ask students before agreeing to serve as a reference.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.