How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

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“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
-Timothy Ferriss

Although letters of recommendation are a mandatory part of almost all applications, many students do not think about them until the last minute. This is a terrible idea because 1) they will not have enough time to personally connect with their recommenders, and 2) their recommender will be rushed to complete the letter in a limited amount of time, which further decreases the personal value of the letter.

Leaving letters of recommendation to the last minute is also troubling because it is the only part of your application over which you do not have full control. Imagine the amount of paperwork, email, and other information that your recommender receives on a daily basis. If you do not give the recommender sufficient time to complete the letter, then it could end up delaying your entire application.

To avoid the aforementioned problems, we have outlined a fail-proof step-by-step method for securing letters of recommendation.

Please note that each person’s situation may differ. For example, one reader may need a letter of recommendation from an unfamiliar professor, while another reader may be able to simply call his current boss and say, “Hey Bill, you old bastard, I need a letter of recommendation by next week.” The steps below represent the ideal approach to getting a letter of recommendation. Feel free to tailor them to your individual situation.

Step One: Research

You first need to research each school’s requirements to determine the following:

  • How many letters you need
  • What types of letters you need (academic or professional)
  • How the letters will be submitted to the schools

It would be ideal to organize this information in a chart or Excel file for future reference.

Step Two: Choose Wisely

After determining how many and what type of letters you need, you need to brainstorm to see who would be the best recommenders. The goal here is “personal value.”

“Personal value” refers to the extent that the letter of recommendation contains the recommender’s personal experiences with you and his or her thoughts about why you will succeed in your particular field.

For example, a letter from your favorite professor for whom you did extensive research is much more valuable than a letter from a Congressman whom you briefly met once or twice. The letter from the professor would probably say something along the lines of how dedicated you are or how you are a great leader and problem solver. The letter would include specific examples of your achievements. In great contrast, what personal things could the random Congressman say about you?

Many students fall into the trap of thinking that the recommender needs to be from a relevant discipline. If you are applying to law school, you do not necessarily need a letter from a professor who teaches a class about constitutional law. Again, the goal is a letter filled with personal value about relevant skills. Law school requires students who have top-notch writing and researching skills. In this regard, it would be perfectly acceptable to obtain a letter from a history or English professor to highlight your application of those skills.

In other words, do not pass up a great, personal letter because of a misplaced assumption that it has to be from someone in that specific field.

Step Three: Touch Base Early

After determining who your recommenders will be, the next step is to briefly meet with them to let them know that you will seek a letter of recommendation. This needs to be done as early as possible.

“Early” is relative to your application deadlines, goals, and personal situation. If you are just starting your fall semester of college and want to submit your applications before Thanksgiving, then you need to approach the recommender during the first week of classes.

Although you can schedule the meeting by phone or email, it absolutely must be in person. This is because the goal of the meeting is two-fold.

First, it lets the recommender know who you are. You will go from a random student or employee to a recognizable face with a name.

Second, you will begin to develop a rapport with the recommender. People in power rarely have a problem with helping the people they like. At the meeting, in addition to putting the recommender on notice that you will need a letter of recommendation, you should strive to have a regular, friendly conversation with him or her. Talk about class, work, football, or anything else that you feel is appropriate. This transforms you from a mere “leech” to a likeable individual.

While at the meeting, do not say, “Hey, I will need you to write me a letter of recommendation.” Be more embellished. For example, say, “Professor, I am really glad that I’m enrolled in your class because I am highly interested in [subject matter]. I hope to work hard, prove myself, and earn a letter of recommendation from you.” Yes, it sounds cheesy, but the recommender will love it.

Note: If you already have a good relationship with the recommender, then combine Steps Three through Five.

Step Four: Impress

Touching base with the recommender gives you his or her attention and has taken you from a random individual to a name with a face. Now is your opportunity to show him or her how great you are.

If the recommender is a professor, then work hard in his or her class, ask intelligent questions about the reading, and attend several office hours. If your recommender is a boss, then work hard and complete projects in a timely manner. Go the “extra mile” by assuming additional responsibilities to help the company.

If you already have a substantial amount of activity from which the recommender can evaluate you, then all you have to do is remind the recommender of your achievements. For example: “Professor, I took your class last semester and earned a high grade. As you may remember, I wrote a final paper on the French Revolution.” Another example: “Mr. Johnson, I completed an unpaid internship with your company over the summer. I was responsible for updating the web site and teaching your staff about social media.”

Step Five: Reconnect

After proving that you are a worthy hard worker, schedule another meeting with your recommender.

Prior to the meeting, obtain a bright-yellow binder with your name on the cover and sides. Fill it with any information that can help the recommender write the letter, such as your resume, unofficial school transcript, information about the school to which you will apply, and a short sample letter highlighting the achievements and characteristics that you would like the recommender to emphasize.

The reason for the bright-yellow binder is simple. It will catch the recommender’s attention on a daily basis whenever she sees it on her desk. It will be a constant reminder that she has to write your letter of recommendation.

The binder should also include anything that the recommender will need to physically deliver the letter to its destination. This includes an addressed envelope with adequate postage. It may also include other items; for example, law school applicants have to provide each recommender with a pre-printed waiver form, which states that they waive the right to see the letter before submission.

At this meeting, inform the recommender of the deadline by which you will need the letter submitted. If you have completed all of our steps, then three weeks should be ample time for the recommender to write a great letter about you.

Also be sure to account for post office delays and administrative processing delays. For these reasons, the recommender should submit the letter at least two weeks before you submit your actual application.

Step Six: Follow up

At this stage, you have done everything that you need to do. Contact the recommender once per week via telephone as a polite reminder that you need the letter completed. You should also monitor the letter on the back end by contacting schools or processing services, such as LSDAS, to confirm that they received each letter of recommendation.


Although this process may seem like a lot of work, it really only involves the basic elements of networking. Touching base, establishing a personal relationship, giving the recommender value by participating in class or excelling at work, and then cashing in your networking investment in the form of a letter of recommendation.

If you have done things correctly, then the result will not only be a fantastic letter of recommendation but a professional relationship with a distinguished mentor. Although the letter is what you need in the short term, we suspect that the professional relationship will turn out to be much more useful in the long run.

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