Asking for Recommendations and References: How to Not Annoy People

Asking for recommendations, letters of reference, or listing someone on as a reference in your job search can be awkward. Whatever type, your first step is  not asking whether that person will write (or provide) you a strong recommendation, it is asking if they are comfortable writing/providing a STRONG recommendation.  A luke-warm recommendation is the last thing you want!

In terms of written letters of recommendation, graduate programs may ask if they are “sealed.” In other words, if you are aware of the letter’s contents.  If this is an option, take it.  The program/school will most likely weigh the letter more heavily if it’s confidential and most recommendation writers will provide you a copy anyway.  In most cases, you will not need “sealed” letters and you will receive the letter directly and see it’s contents allowing you to assess the strength of their case.

Here are some tips for navigating the world of recommendation request and reference lists:

1.  Communicate.  Give them all the details they need to make their life easier – and put it all in one place. You may even want to set up a 15 minute meeting or call to go over your request.

  • What type of recommendation or reference (grad school, promotion, award nomination, job search, etc.) are you asking for?
  • What are the parameters (how long, what format, how and when should it be submitted)?
  • If you are asking to list them as a reference for an employer tell them a bit about the employer and the position to which you are applying. Also ask the contact information that is best to list.

2.  Give enough notice.  There is nothing more annoying than a last minute request for a letter of reference. Provide at least 2-4 weeks lead time to the author to ensure they have enough time to write you a strong recommendation. [Note: professors who are asked to write multiple letters every year may need even more lead time.] If listing someone as a reference definitely give them a heads up BEFORE they get a call from a potential employer.

3.  Provide context. Give them the whole story so they can talk about you from multiple perspectives.

  • What type of organization/company/school are you applying to and why? For example, let them know what type of graduate program you are applying to and why that particular program so they can incorporate that into their letter.  If you are applying for a volunteer or board position or award, give them the background on your qualifications and the organization’s mission.
  • What aspects of your personal/professional background are you hoping they can focus on?
  • Provide any corresponding documents (personal statement, resume, cover letter, etc).

4.  Make them diverse.  Think about who will resonate most with that employer/organization. Do you know anyone who currently works there or who has worked there in the past?  Do you “know someone who knows someone” in a significant role at that organization?  Whether you are providing a list of references or packet of recommendations, be sure to include a variety of perspectives.  Employers will definitely want to speak with someone who has managed you directly. If that is your current manager that is great, but that isn’t always possible.  Graduate school programs will most likely want to hear from a former professor.  Professors, colleagues, managers, mentors, and advocates are all potential references.

5.  Say thank you.  The only thing more annoying than not enough notice is not being thanked for writing a letter.   A handwritten note is always a nice touch (or homemade cookies!).

6.  Keep in touch.   Let them know the outcome!  They are now invested in your search.

7.  Ask more people than you need.  You never know if something will come up and one of your references/recommendations will not come through by the deadline.  Having an extra also allows you the luxury of picking the best of the bunch.

We want to know: do you write recommendations and have tips to add to the list? 

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