There’s a reason employers, colleges, scholarship boards, and others ask for letters of recommendation: they are a chance for someone who knows the applicant to express his or her insight into the applicant’s character and capabilities, and they offer an intimate look at how the applicant presents himself to others that know him on a personal and professional level. Therefore, it is understandable that knowing both how to request and how to write a letter of recommendation can make a huge difference in your own life and the life of those you know.
Here’s a helpful primer on everything you need to know on letters of recommendation: whether you’re the one writing or requesting one.
Requesting a Letter of Recommendation
When requesting a letter, there are a few important things to remember. First off, be sure to actually request. It may sound basic, but being polite and reverential goes a long way. You are, after all, asking for a favor that takes time and effort. So be nice.
Secondly, be sure that you’re requesting the letter from someone who is actually suited. The ideal recommender is someone who has known you for a long time and in a deep manner. You don’t want someone who barely knows you to write something perfunctory and generic. You want someone who knows you well to go to bat with something that will illuminate your candidacy by putting the spot light on who you are.
Third, be sure to research the requirements and give any essential information to your letter writer! It’s frustrating to recommenders to not know what to do. They shouldn’t have to ask you what they need to do in order to fulfill a request that you’re making of them. You should have already looked up whether the position in question requests hard copies, e-mailed, or form-submitted letters, not to mention the deadline, format, and any other requirements on that side.
Lastly, be sure to tell them more about you. Even if you’re on very close terms with someone, it can’t hurt to inform them of all the relevant experience and projects that go along with what you’re applying to. Send over your CV, write up a little blurb about your goals and projects, and otherwise give them a narrative from which they can draw some real information about what you bring to the table. If they don’t know, they can’t mention it!
Differing Types of Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation come in a number of forms. Here are some of the common ones. Generally, what differentiates these letters from one another is simple: each has a different goal and will express a different aspect of the applicant.
Academic/student: These letters are written for an application for higher education, including undergraduate and graduate level institutions, as well as fellowships and research positions.
Professional: These are for career opportunities and professional positions.
Character/personal: These focus on the applicant’s character for those positions that aren’t so interested about experience, as they are knowing how good the person is. You’ll sometimes see this kind of letter written for people who are expected to display sterling character, like teachings of small children, or applicants to military academies.
Coworker: This is a recommendation written by a coworker. These are asked for when the application wants to get a sense of how the applicant is viewed by their peers.
Scholarship/grant: These are for applicants who are seeking a scholarship or grant and so focus on why they would be suitable to receiving these awards.
How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
The letter should always begin with greeting the proper person. If you can, try to avoid “to whom it may concern” if only because a personal greeting to those who are reading through the applications is best. But if you can’t find that information, don’t worry: it isn’t the end of the world.
Next, explain your relationship to the applicant. Describe when you met, how long you’ve known them, and in what capacity.
Follow this up with explaining what the applicant’s skills are and how you’ve come to know that proficiency. If you’re their teacher, talk about their grades; their boss, their work performance; a friend, how they’ve been a good friend to you. Basically, explain why you think this person is stellar at what they do! Speak to their strengths.
Be sure you also relate these skills to the actual goal of the letter. You’ll want to show why these skills apply.
End by striking at how suitable you think the applicant is. You want those reading the letter to really believe what you are saying and to know how good they are.
Of course, be sure to include all your contact information, with an additional note that you’d be willing to speak further at length if they have any questions. It’s rare for them to follow up, but if they do, they need a way to reach you.
Also, if at any point during the process of writing you are in need of more information, it is important for you to reach out to the applicant. Don’t be afraid to request as much details as possible. If you do not have the requisite amount of information, your letter will be poor, and neither they nor you want that.
Honesty is the Best Policy
Sometimes, it is tempting to really go a little too far when writing a letter, but this is not a good idea. If you make the applicant out to be the greatest at something when he or she clearly isn’t, you are going to set him or her up for failure.
This doesn’t mean selling them short, or being too modest in your praise, but it means realistically looking for their strengths, expressing those, and not just making things up.
You can’t say the applicant can speak a language or has a skill he doesn’t have—these things will be found out! Focus on what they do bring to the table and express THAT in a way that will wow them.
Once again, letters of recommendation matter, and what has been presented here should give you a good basis whether you’re the one writing or the one requesting a letter.
We’ve discussed what it is that you need when you request a letter, what the general types of letters are, how to write one yourself, and warned against writing nonsense just to give someone some support.
One last thing: don’t wait till the last minute! These letters take time to write. Give yourself and your recommender all the time he or she needs to write something meaningful. Don’t pressure them at the last minute.