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Why ask for letters of recommendation and how to do it

CareerBuilder | May 23, 2022

letters of recommendation

Getting letters of recommendation doesn't have to be awkward. Here's everything you need to know about asking for a letter of recommendation when job hunting.

In the job market, letters of recommendation are useful when applying for jobs that demand good references or when you need to stand out. For most jobs, providing a resume and a cover letter is usually sufficient. However, if you're asked for a letter of recommendation or decide to get one, you'll want to do it right.

Let's go over what letters of recommendation are and why you should ask for them when applying for jobs. We'll also discuss how to ask for a letter of recommendation the right way.

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a message addressed to a potential employer about why you'd be a good fit for the job. Some recommendation letters are required when applying to a graduate school, but the purpose is generally the same. The most appropriate person to write a recommendation letter for you would be a past or current supervisor. You might also ask people who knew you during your schooling, like a college professor who had a role in your life or even just a coworker.

Recommendation letters are a type of job reference. References often won't matter until a little later, such as after a first interview. As a result, you don't normally need to include a letter of recommendation with every job application.

Do letters of recommendation matter?

Although not as commonly used as a resume and cover letter, letters of recommendation can be required to get certain jobs. Doctor's assistants and any type of teaching job, for instance, might request a written reference from someone in the industry. In other cases, you might use a recommendation letter to strengthen your application when you have little work experience.

If you're looking for a way to enhance your application, a recommendation letter can add an extra level of credibility. That said, it's best to hold off and only submit such a letter when directly asked.

What does a letter of recommendation look like?

A proper letter of recommendation is only one page long unless there are enough job-relevant details to make it longer. The parts of a letter of recommendation are:

  • Contact information, as in the writer's name, address, and other info. This goes at the header on the top left or top right.
  • Further down, there should be a salutation from the letter writer to the group or person who might hire you.
  • The opening paragraph should explain that the person sincerely recommends you as an applicant as well as who they are and their connection to you.
  • The second paragraph should go into detail about the key strengths you have as an applicant for the job in question, with concrete examples.
  • The third paragraph is usually where more general praise and personality-based compliments are given. A clear example from their time knowing you would be useful.
  • If the letter is being written by the supervisor of your most recent job, the next paragraph should explain why you left. If you had a neutral or positive reason, the writer can confirm it.
  • There should be a closing paragraph reiterating that you come recommended for the job as well as an invitation to contact the letter writer with questions.

After that, the letter should be signed like any other. If you can get a printed copy with a hand-written signature beneath the closing line, all the better, but a typed name on a digital copy is acceptable.

Letter of recommendation formatting

When you ask for a letter of recommendation, the ideal format is:

  • No more than one page unless necessary
  • 12-point type in a basic font, like Times New Roman
  • 1-inch to 1.5-inch margins
  • Left alignment on all components

Most professionals know to follow a template. That said, you may want to send these rules to someone who's less familiar with the process. If the writer follows these basics guidelines, the letter will look professional.

How to request a letter of recommendation

To formally request a letter of recommendation from someone who is out of reach, you can write a letter of your own. If you've asked someone nearby, you could call or visit and ask them in person. In either case, here's what you should do if they say yes:

Supply some information

When you request a letter of recommendation, you should reintroduce yourself if necessary. If you create a profile so employers can find you, you could send that to the writer. Explain the position you're applying for and how your experience with them applies to this new job.

Show them your resume

You'll want to provide the letter writer with a copy of your resume, cover letter, and other documents you're sending to the hiring manager. This will help the person write a letter that feels relevant and doesn't repeat anything.

Let them do some research

If you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation, they may want to take some time to look up the job and company. Make sure the writer has enough time to do research on you and the position.

Move on if they're too slow

Not everyone is comfortable writing a letter of recommendation. This doesn't necessarily mean they don't like you or don't think you deserve it. People can get busy, so give them a little time before quietly moving on and asking someone else.

Tips to get a good letter of recommendation

Here are a few tips to get excellent letters of recommendation whenever you need them.

  • Ask in person: Try to visit the person instead of asking over email or the phone. Asking in person takes more time and shows serious intent. If you can't travel to them, see if you can schedule a virtual interview.
  • Avoid transferrable skills: Transferrable skills, such as Microsoft Office or using a cash register, aren't worth mentioning. The letter should be broader and discuss your character and accomplishments. Leave important transferrable skills on your resume.
  • Keep it broad: The best endorsements in a letter of recommendation are broad and build your image as a great person to hire.
  • Tell them who to address in the letter: Give the letter writer a clear subject to address in the salutation so they don't have to use "To whom it may concern."
  • Ask as soon as you're going to leave a job: It might be best to ask for a letter of recommendation as soon as you're going to leave a job or graduate. An instructor or manager could write you a fantastic letter if you give them time, so it helps to ask, provide information, and handle other details before your last day or final exams.

Good letters of recommendation should help introduce you to a hiring manager. If you're applying for a job and need such a letter, keep the process stress-free. The tips above will help you get an awesome letter, which boosts your chance of getting hired for a selective position.

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