A Guide to Getting an Effective Letter of Recommendation

A letter of recommendation may not land your next job for you, but it goes a long way toward proving that you’ve been a great worker in the past and, presumably, that you’ll be a great worker in the future. It’s one important element in a complete job hunter package, and it pays to plan ahead for this particular component.

Requesting a letter of recommendation from people—whether it’s a former employer, colleague, or professor—can be intimidating. It’s hard to put yourself on the line and potentially be told “no.” It can also be embarrassing to contact someone you haven’t spoken to in a while with the news that you’re on the hunt for a new job and, by the way, you need a favor. Do your best to put that anxiety aside. Right now, you need a letter of recommendation. Tomorrow, someone may ask you for one. The good news is that most people are honored to provide one.

There are two reasons most people ask for a letter: they’re leaving a current job and want to prepare for an upcoming job search, or they’ve got a lead on a great job and need a letter tailored for the position. Regardless of which situation applies to you, the information below will help you through the process from beginning to end.

The Content
Before narrowing down a list of people from whom you’d like to request a letter, it’s essential to know what the letter should contain. Naturally, you want it to be a glowing report about how wonderful you are, but it’s not enough for the writer to put together a vague collage of what a great person you are. The letter needs to list specific qualities that, preferably, relate to your job or field of interest. Because it should contain your unique strengths, it’s often helpful to supply some talking points to the person who’s writing the letter of recommendation, as well as at least some idea about the company or industry that will receive the letter.

Some of the things potential employers are looking for:
• A rundown of your abilities and how you’ve applied them to projects in the past.
• Demonstration of your leadership skills and how they’ve made a tangible impact.
• Your ability to get along easily with colleagues and supervisors and what characteristics you would bring to a potential team.
• Your attention to detail when it comes to things like punctuality.

Depending on the person you ask, he or she may not be familiar with some of your latest and greatest professional successes. Make sure you supply a detailed description of some of your accomplishments, along with your current resume. They may not use all of the information you provided—or any of it—but it can at least give the writer a jumping off point.

Whether due to a busy schedule or feeling unprepared for the request, it’s not uncommon for the writer to ask you to come up with your own letter of recommendation that they’ll simply sign. While at first glance it may seem perfect—hey, you can make yourself sound like the best thing since sliced bread!—do your best to encourage him or her to actually write it. Why? Because hiring managers often contact letter writers to discuss details or gather more information. If they haven’t actually written it, it’s going to be difficult to fake it at that point, and experienced HR people can spot the frauds.
Who to Ask
First of all, be sure that anyone you ask is familiar with you on a professional or educational level; this isn’t the time to line up a clergy member for a character reference unless that’s specific to the job for which you’re applying. Here are common choices:
• Current and former employers
• Colleagues (not subordinates) who’ve worked with you on a regular basis
• Professors (if you’re a recent graduate) who taught at least several of your classes, preferably in your major
If the person you ask hesitates, thank them for considering your request and let them off the hook. People hesitate for a variety of reasons—they’re not comfortable with their writing skills or perhaps they’ve never written a letter of recommendation and don’t know where to start. The other possibility is that this person may not be as big a fan of your work as you think they are. Rather than put them in an awkward position, simply move on. And never try to change someone’s mind about writing a letter for you; that’s a recipe for disaster.

If you’re leaving a job and have a good relationship with your supervisor, be sure to request a letter of recommendation during your final two weeks on the job so your accomplishments are front and center in his mind. A similar rule applies to students who are graduating; get the letters now, rather than trying to make your professors remember details about your academic life a year from now.

Seal the Deal
Don’t overlook these details:
• If you need a letter written for a specific job, give the writer an addressed, stamped envelope so they can send the letter directly to the company.
• Follow up with writers by phone or note (preferably both) to thank them for their time. It’s not only polite, but it can nudge them to complete the letter if it’s fallen by the wayside.