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How to Request a Personal Reference Letter of Recommendation

by Ellie Williams, studioD

A glowing letter of recommendation from a personal reference can give you a significant advantage over other candidates, whether you’re applying for a job or vying for a prestigious national award. Many supervisors, colleagues and professors are happy to recommend people who have demonstrated professionalism, talent and intelligence. When you ask someone to write you a letter, do so in a way that shows respect to the other person’s time and do your best to make the process as easy as possible for them.

Ask Early

Give your references plenty of time to craft a thoughtful, well-written letter. If you ask at the last minute, they won’t have time to put together a professional-sounding letter that articulately describes your qualifications. They might feel rushed or imposed upon, which will likely come through in the letter and make a bad impression on whomever reads it. Ask at least two weeks in advance, aiming for three to four weeks if you can. If you must request the letter on short notice - perhaps a unexpected opportunity came up - apologize for not asking sooner and explain why you couldn't.

Provide Ample Information

Even if your references knows you well, they might not be aware of all of your accomplishments. In addition, if they don’t understand the job, honor or other opportunity you’re seeking, they can’t tailor the recommendation letter to your situation. Provide them with your resume and any supporting materials that highlight your qualifications and explain what you’re applying for. If it’s a grant or scholarship, for example, include brochures and pamphlets that describe what the organization seeks in applicants. To make it even easier, write a template they can use or a bulleted list noting your achievements and how they relate to the opportunity.

Explain Your Reasons

Tell your references why you think they're the perfect people to recommend you. For example, say that you’ve always respected their professional opinion and expertise, and that you think the recipient of the letter will too. If you’ve worked closely with them, tell them no one else at the company knows your talents and strengths as well as they do. You can also emphasize why their position makes them the ideal person to vouch for you. If you’re applying for a job, for example, a recommendation from your immediate supervisor might carry more weight than one from a co-worker.

Take the Pressure Off

Adopt a “no questions asked" policy when asking references for a recommendation. Stress that you’ll understand if they don't have time to write the letter or don’t feel qualified to, regardless of the reason. If you provide a template or suggestions, point out that you only offered them as a resource, and that you welcome them to write their own version or make changes. If you want to ask to see the letter and they are reluctant, emphasize that you respect their decision to keep it confidential.

About the Author

Ellie Williams has been a journalist since 2001. Her work has been recognized by her state's press association and by her local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Williams graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in mass communications and humanities, with minors in French and theater.

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