When you apply for admission to university, a job, or a scholarship, you may be asked to include letters of recommendation. These letters, typically written by teachers, counselors, or managers, are meant to vouch for your qualifications and character.
A strong recommendation allows the person reviewing your application to get to know you beyond your resume, giving a more complete picture of who you are and what motivates you.
Letters of recommendation frequently appear as a requirement on college applications. You’ll usually need one to three of these letters when you’re applying for an undergraduate program or, sometimes, graduate school.
Job applications more commonly require a list of references, rather than a letter of recommendation, but you may see this requirement show up from time to time. Even if a job application doesn’t require a recommendation letter, attaching one to your cover letter or application could give you a competitive edge over other applicants.
It’s totally normal to feel nervous about asking for a letter of recommendation. While it may feel uncomfortable at first, it’s a normal part of the application process. With a bit of preparation, you can maximize your chances of getting stellar recommendations.
The most effective recommendation will come from someone who knows you well and can speak to your character on a personal level. Make a list of several people who you could ask. You’ll probably only need three, but it’s always a good idea to have backups in case something falls through.
If you’re applying to college, consider asking a teacher and your guidance counselor. Choose teachers of classes where you performed well (and who you had good rapport with). Teachers you had during your junior or senior year will have the freshest memories of you (and are likely more accustomed to writing such letters).
Many college applications require at least one letter from your guidance counselor. If you don’t know this person well, don’t be afraid to make an appointment so they can learn more about you.
If you’re working on a grad school application, your letters will likely come from one or more of your professors. Ideally, ask professors who are in the same field as the program you’re applying to. If you’re a working professional currently applying to go back to school, your options include bosses and mentors, colleagues, or former professors with whom you had a good relationship.
When you’re applying for a job, your former managers or supervisors often make the best letter writers. The closer the former job aligns with the role you’re applying for, the better. If you decide to ask a current or former coworker, try to choose someone with more years of professional experience than you. They’ll be able to endorse you with greater authority.
One of the best ways to get a strong recommendation is to make it easy for the person doing the writing to highlight your accomplishments. One easy way to do this is by providing a copy of your academic transcripts and resume to the person writing your letter.
If you’re still in school and don’t yet have a resume, you can make what’s called a brag sheet instead. This is a concise list that highlights your qualifications and best characteristics. Make sure to include:
The courses you took with this teacher or professor and the grade you received
One or two of your top attributes with examples of how you’ve demonstrated them in class or at work
Your overall GPA, test scores, and top academic accomplishments
Extracurricular activities or volunteer work you’ve done
A short blurb about your goals for the program or position you’re applying for
While it might feel a little awkward to brag about yourself, remember that this is the time to show off your hard work and celebrate your wins.
Before you send a formal, written request for a letter of recommendation, speak with each individual in person. Preparing what you’ll say ahead of time can help you feel more calm and confident. Explain what it is you’re applying for and why you’re asking this person to recommend you.
You’re asking for a favor, but the people who know you well probably want you to succeed and will gladly do what they can to help. Teachers and professors in particular are used to writing these letters—it’s sometimes even a part of their job description.
After you’ve confirmed your request in person, email a formal written request to each individual who has agreed to write your recommendation. Feel free to use the template below to guide your writing. When you send your request, also include:
Information on the position or role you’re applying for
Details about how and when the letter should be submitted
An updated resume or brag sheet
A pre-addressed, stamped envelope (for letters that need to be sent by mail)
A sample letter (if requested)
Follow up with a polite reminder a week or two before your letters are due. This is a good opportunity to thank them for writing the letter and offer to send any additional information they may need.
It’s common courtesy to send a short thank you note to each individual who wrote a letter on your behalf. Express your appreciation for their support with a mailed handwritten note or email. And be sure to update your recommenders with the good news when you’re accepted to the role.
Ask early. Teachers and faculty members sometimes get inundated with requests to write recommendation letters around the time when college applications are due. Asking well in advance will allow them to spend some time and attention on your letter. For professional recommenders, try to ask three weeks in advance.
Tip: Applying for college? Ask your teachers for a recommendation at the end of your junior year and you’ll be well ahead of schedule.
If you sense hesitation, ask someone else. There are many reasons someone may not feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for you. And it may not have anything to do with you or your qualifications. This person might not feel like they know you well enough or cannot speak to the skills and qualifications of the role you’re applying for.
You want letters of recommendation that vouch for you without hesitation. If someone hesitates or turns down your request, you’re better off asking someone else who can write you a strong recommendation.
When you leave a job, ask for a letter of recommendation, especially if you had a positive working relationship with your manager. Get a letter now while the memories of the impact you’ve made are still fresh in your manager’s mind. You’ll have it ready to submit to potential employers.
Use this template to get you started on your letter of recommendation request. You can download the template here.
Dear Ms./Mr. [Recommender Name],
I hope you’re well. I’m in the process of applying to [school or company name] and want to ask if you feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation on my behalf.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time as [your relationship to the recommender]. As my [teacher/counselor/manager], I believe you could honestly and effectively vouch for my [list of skills or qualifications] I’ve demonstrated during our time together.
I appreciate you considering my request. The deadline for submitting the letter is [date]. I’ve attached an updated version of my [resume/brag sheet], as well as the [job posting/admission requirements] and details on how to submit the letter. If you need any additional information, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Thank you for your time and support.
[Your phone number]
[Your email address]
Online degrees on Coursera
Find a path forward to accelerate your career with online degrees. On Coursera, you can find online master’s degrees and bachelor's degrees from world-class universities in topics like data science, computer science and engineering, business, and public health. With live instruction, peer feedback, and high-quality learning you can access anytime, anywhere, it's possible to move your career forward on your terms.