How and When Should I Ask for Recommendation Letters?

Application Strategy

How and When Should I Ask for Recommendation Letters?

The art of asking or a strong recommendation letter is a timeless skill: it will follow you from the college application process into your first, second, and third internship application and beyond. Here are some essentials for any recommendation letter.

Before the Letter:

Build relationships. I’m sure you’ve heard that you should always ask for letters from those that know you well and could provide a strong character, academic, and professional reference. But how do you even get there? Asking for a recommendation letter is just one aspect of the relationship you should form with mentors, professors, and employers.  So don’t make your first conversation or interaction around the letter of recommendation. Spend time after class talking about the material; ask a professor for some outside book recommendations; take time to have one-on-one time with your employer asking about their career trajectory. You'll find that these relationships will enrich your academic experience.

The Ask:

  1. Time is relative. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers—from asking two months before to asking a couple of weeks at minimum. However, you’ll come to see that each recommender you encounter will need a different amount of time. When first asking someone for a recommendation, touch base two months before. Slowly you’ll see that you’ll be able to reduce that time down to about two-weeks. Strong recommenders that know you well will eventually be fine with you contacting them in less time.
  2. Always give your target recommenders an exit strategy. Afraid of being told ‘no’?—Many chances the reasons someone might say no are actually in your best interest. You want someone who is comfortable writing for and about you, so if someone feels like they can’t say no, you could get an unconvincing letter. Don’t ask, “Can you write a letter of recommendation for me?” Instead, ask “Do you think you have some time to write a strong recommendation letter on my behalf?” This gives a recommender the ability to say they’re busy if they don’t think they’re able to write a great letter on your behalf.

After the hard part's done:

  1. Have back-ups and check-in regularly. Check-in with recommenders. Life can change, leaving less time than previously imagined. Your recommenders will appreciate the gentle check-in to see if they still have time available. Always check-in with enough time to find a back-up recommender if they don’t.
  2. E-mail is nice, but in person meetings are better. In a way, putting together a set of strong recommendations is like crafting a symphony. When asking more than one person for a recommendation, make sure they don't all write about the same experiences. After studying abroad, I found this particularly helpful when putting together my Rhodes application. With only five days for my recommenders to submit their letters, sitting down with each recommender in person helped us brainstorm how each could contribute a different snapshot of who I was—as a scholar, activist, employee, and person.
  3. Say thank you. Every application is a team effort. Your recommenders are many times not just professors and employers, but your biggest cheerleaders. And they want to see you succeed, which is why they joined on this journey with you. Thank them for being part of the process with you, and keep them updated on the results—whether they are good or bad. Give details of what you think went well and what went wrong. Your feedback on the general process (where you stood out and didn't) can help them strengthen their letter for the next round. They’ll want to celebrate or re-strategize with you, and letting them be a part of that process, too, is how you build community.