Requesting letters of recommendation

Advancing through life is 20% easier if other people write nice things about you. The advice below maximizes the chance that people will agree to write a letter for you, and increases the quality of the letter.

Ask your potential letter writers nicely, and be careful to pitch in a way that can reveal whether they’d be able and willing to write a good letter. Some people might hate you, and you don’t want those people to write letters on your behalf.

Give your letter writer at least one (1) month warning before you need the letters to be mailed.

Provide the letter writer the following information:

  1. When, exactly, the letter is due. As a rule, even if you give a person 2 years advance warning, a letter will be late unless you specifically state a date it should be mailed. If you are requesting letters from people who might not have complete mastery of their schedule, you might consider giving them a false “early” date instead of the true deadline. If you are truly concerned, write on your request sheet that you would like (“pretty please, if possible”) to be notified by e-mail once a letter has been sent. Also, consider adding a well-positioned Post-It on each form with a due date and whether it should be returned to you (in a sealed envelope, of course) or be sent directly to the recipient.
  2. The address. If you have lots of addresses, use Post-Its in a tabbed way so they stick out even if forms are filed in a big pile. Make it painfully easy to keep track of each request.
  3. Whenever possible, provide the name and title of the person who will receive the completed letter. “To whom it may concern” always sounds awful, and inappropriate use of Miss, Mrs, Ms, Mr, and Dr can be offensive if the recipient is not who you think it is.
  4. Why position X fit into your short or long-term goals. If you have no goals in life, be honest with your letter writer about that.
  5. Why you are asking for a letter.  Explain to your letter writer why he or she might have good insight into your skills and personality.  It’s best to put these reasons into writing so that when your letter writer starts to write, he/she remembers how to pitch their thoughts.  You want letters that say, “Melissa would be a perfect fit because…”
  6. Specific items (e.g., laboratory experience, statistical knowledge, ability to get along with others, courses taken) that you would like the letter writer to specifically mention.  The letter write is busy, so giving this information makes their task easier.
  7. Names of  other letter writers. This information helps the letter writer adjust his/her comments.
  8. Your resume. If you don’t have a resume, you need to craft one right now.  And for the love of God, make sure it is completely free of Type Os.
  9. Transcript. Your letter writer might not need it, but don’t risk it. A good letter writer can, for example, write about GPAs at your college are not as inflated as others. Or can say that you chose to take hard courses within a hard major.  E.g., grades given in college science courses are typically a full grade lower than those given out in non-science courses…and this discrepancy cannot be explained, I suspect, by high-SAT, high-IQ students flocking to non-science majors.


  10. Typically, you do not need to provide envelopes or stamps to your letter writers.  Recipients of letters want visual assurance that the letters are actually from the letter writer, not forged by you.  So they will be expecting fancy letterhead, fancy envelopes, institutional postage markings, and handwriting that looks different than yours. But you could ask your letter writers, of course, just to make sure.

Letter writers spend up to 10 hours crafting a good letter (really), and the best way to pay them back is to tell them whether you got the position, and then follow up with a later letter telling them how it fulfilled your wildest dreams.  A good letter writer can be the most important person in your life, after your parents, so keep them in the loop by sending a note to that effect every few decades, even after you’ve long been established in whatever you do in life.

And when YOU start to get asked to write letters for YOUR underlings, remember to do a careful and thoughtful job, too.