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Letters of recommendation

Posted on July 12, 2017
Graphic of a piece of paper and a pen

Who hasn’t had to ask for a letter of recommendation at some point, whether it was for an internship, a graduate school application, or a new job?

If you have, did you think strategically about which person to ask? Most people don't; instead, they simply ask the person they believe will give them the best recommendation.

While I would like to think people never ask for a letter of recommendation from someone who will give them a poor recommendation, I know firsthand that this is not the case. I have reviewed hundreds of graduate school applications and a fair number of employment applications. You would be surprised at some of the lukewarm recommendations I have read and even more surprised at the downright negative ones, including “I would never hire this person” or “Mark is one of my less than stellar students, who rarely participates in class…” These are shocking and upsetting to read, but they say more about the author than they do the applicant. If you are asked to write a letter of recommendation, and you don’t feel you can write a compelling one, kindly tell the individual you don’t feel comfortable or don’t have the time.

Back to the person who will give you the best recommendation — clearly, a good, generalized recommendation is not a bad thing, but consider someone who will be better able to write you a meaningful and strategic letter that speaks directly to the desired skills. If I’m hiring a Director of Human Resources, for example, I will appreciate a generic letter of recommendation describing the candidate’s work ethic and ability to collaborate; however, a letter from an individual that specifically references skills I am seeking, such as managing the performance review process, identifying compliance issues, and developing a plan to make the company compliant, etc., will be far more meaningful to me as the hiring manager.

How do you ensure a positive and meaningful review?

Think carefully about who you want to ask—who can speak about you, your skills and knowledge, and how you will be a good fit? Think about his or her position and ability to speak about you. For example, don't ask only colleagues with whom you have more of a personal relationship over ones with whom you collaborate. (Also, you may not be able to ask your boss for fear of tipping your hand.) When you ask, provide the prospective author with an opportunity to say no. Give him or her an out in case he or she is too busy or doesn’t feel comfortable. When she or he agrees, ask for his or her preferred contact information; do not assume the work phone number or email address is acceptable.

Then, provide him or her with a copy of your resume and a copy of the job description. These provide accurate details about you and your work history, preventing the author from guessing or providing false information. You can even highlight areas where you believe the person can speak to your strengths.

Next, follow up with a conversation about the position, why you are applying for it, what you like about the company, and how you feel you can benefit the company. This provides the heart and emotion for the author’s letter about you.

Some job applications are now digital, and you can see if a letter of recommendation has been received. For colleges and universities, someone from the admission’s office will usually follow up when you are missing a letter of recommendation. If a requested letter has not been received, there is nothing wrong with asking. Be respectful and courteous when you ask.

Finally, whether you get the job or not, or are accepted into that program or not, you must write a thank you note or call the people who wrote letters for you and thank them. Writing a good letter of recommendation takes time, and it is courteous and thoughtful to show your appreciation with a thank you.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

Posted in professional-development-career-tips