How to Get an Excellent Letter of Recommendation

When you’re searching for a new job, you may find that employers in certain industries (or those who are hiring professionals to work on highly sensitive projects and programs) may request a letter of recommendation before considering you. Even if it’s not a requirement, being recommended definitely opens doors.

However, asking for a letter of recommendation from a former boss, mentor or colleague can feel awkward—especially if you haven’t done it before. Plus, there are some business etiquette rules you should know and follow. These tips will help make the process more efficient and professional.

Plan a Recommendation Well Ahead

Realize that writing a letter of recommendation is not an easy task. “Doing it well requires considerable time and effort,” advised Jodi Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

As a rule, you should give the person a week or two to write the letter, so they aren’t rushed. (You definitely don’t want to request it the night before your job interview, for instance.) Help them actually follow-through by sending a short-thank you note and/or a friendly reminder a few days before the deadline.

Customize the Recommender’s “Ask”

When it comes to recommendations, it’s always best to ask people who know you well and are likely to give you a positive one. While it might seem easier and more time-efficient to fire off an “ask” email to a potential recommender, a phone call is more personal, and thus more likely to achieve the results you want; you can always follow up with an email.  

You should adapt your “ask strategy” based on how well you know the person and the response you are likely to get. If you haven’t talked to someone for quite some time, it might even be worth asking for a face-to-face meeting—over coffee, for example—to discuss your job search and goals. Only once you’ve re-established rapport, should you explain why you need the letter.

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” advised Debra Wheatman CPRW, CPCC, president of Careers Done Write, Inc. Explain that you value the recommender’s opinion, and how having their endorsement would carry a lot of weight with a prospective employer.

Although most people will say “yes” to the request, writing a detailed (and convincing) letter takes time. You should give the person some time to think the request over; don’t immediately press for an answer.

For example, say something along the lines of: “I know how busy you are, so feel free to say no. But if you have the time, I would appreciate it if you could write a letter of recommendation for me.”

“Make it easy for the person to say no,” Smith added.

If they say no, don’t get angry; simply thank them for their time and move on. For this reason, it’s always good to have a lengthy list of potential recommenders in mind before you launch a job search.

Be Ready to Provide Letter Content

The more detailed and personalized a letter is, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on a hiring manager or search committee.

To make sure the letter is on point, you may want to provide the content, Wheatman said. Plus, a former manager may need a gentle reminder about your abilities; also, they may not know which qualities and experiences are most relevant to the position you’re seeking.

For instance, be ready to provide a summary of the job requirements, the name and title of the recipient (i.e., the hiring manager), and a timeline for the recommendation’s submission, as well as a copy of your résumé and cover letter. They might also want you to name one or two of the qualities, skills and/or achievements you would like them to mention in the letter. Details matter.

If the letter is to be mailed, provide the recommender with addressed, stamped envelopes. A busy recommender may expect you to do some of the heavy lifting, in terms of the actual writing, so offer to draft something up (making a few edits and changes is a lot faster than writing a letter from scratch). Sometimes it’s helpful to have a template or draft of the letter ready to go before you reach out to recommenders.

In some cases, the recommender may ask if you would like to review the letter before they send it. If they offer – don’t rewrite it. Only correct glaring errors to avoid offending a valuable contact, Smith advised.

Stay in Touch

Always send your recommender a thank-you note expressing your appreciation for their efforts and support. Then keep them updated on your progress throughout your job search.

Should you need a recommendation in the future, staying in touch and sharing details about your career progress and achievements will ensure that a former boss or colleague will continue to provide valuable support and endorsements. Treat your recommenders as more than a one-time interaction; these are relationships you definitely want to maintain for the long term.