Asking For a Recommendation: Six Tips

You’re approaching the end of your junior or senior year, and it’s time to start thinking about the future. You may be setting your sites on college applications, summer internships, competitive summer job opportunities, graduate school, or even (gulp) the real world.

But since you don’t yet have much experience with the professional world or the rigors of higher education, you’ll need someone to vouch for you in order to get in the door. This is how our system usually works, and for good reason: At your age, your credentials don’t yet speak for themselves, so employers and gatekeepers like to hear from respected professors and bosses who think you’re the cat’s meow.

A “work ethic” is an abstract and difficult thing to measure. But if you can get someone to stand behind you and tell the world that you’re willing to come in early and go the extra mile, you can add this quality to your list of selling points. But here’s the trick: Your professors and bosses won’t volunteer to do this—you’ll have to ask them. And this can be awkward.

Here are a few tips that can make the process easier for both of you:

1. Start early. If your application deadline is five months away, don’t just let this task slide until the final week before your due date. There’s nothing wrong with gathering your recommendations too early, but submitting them too late is out of the question. Besides, the more time you give your recommenders, the more thought and care they’ll be able to put into the process.

2. Ask verbally before you put anything in writing. If you see your professor or boss in person on a regular basis, arrange a meeting or linger for a few minutes after class to make your request. Ask politely and respectfully if they feel comfortable doing this favor for you.

3. Follow up within the next few days. If you get a verbal agreement, send your full request with detailed written instructions to your recommender’s inbox. Again, be respectful and polite, but make sure you’re also clear. The desired length of the message, the points it should address, the destination, and the deadline should all be laid out.

4. Follow up with a gentle nudge two weeks and one week before the final deadline for submission. If you haven’t received the materials or confirmation you need, send a polite reminder.

5. Give your recommender plenty of time. If your boss or professor would like you to write your own recommendation and have them simply read it and sign it, allow plenty of time for this as well. Make sure the message to be signed is in the person’s hands at least a few days before you need it back.

6. Don’t fall asleep. After you receive your recommendation, don’t just say thank you and move on. Leave a lasting and positive memory of this exchange in the mind of your recommender. A handwritten thank-you note is usually a wise move. And depending on the difficulty of the task and the degree to which this favor can help you reach your goals, it may also be nice to attach a small gift, like a miniature box of chocolates or a small bouquet of flowers. There’s no need for extravagance, but try to make the person feel good about helping you.

Resumes, Recommendations & Cover Letters

As a young person with no professional track record, your recommendations will be your most important selling feature, with one exception: Your resume. A strong resume can open doors, and together, your resume, cover letter, project portfolio, and recommendations can show even the most skeptical employers that you’re ready for anything the working world sends your way. Visit MyPerfectResume for tools and tips that can start you down the path to professional success.