You spent the time researching and refining your experience and now, you’re finally ready to apply for a new job, or submit that graduate school application. That’s also the moment you realize you need references.
And when you wrack your brain for whom to turn to, you feel hesitance. You haven’t talked to your former bosses or professors in years. Your old boss didn’t want you to leave her company. You didn’t get an A in your most admired professor’s class, so you’re not sure they remember you. What do you do?
In order to get a great reference, you need to ask for one. Your goal is to make it as easy as possible for your recommender to give you a great recommendation Provide them with all the information they need to present you in the best possible light for your dream job or program. Here’s how to ask for a recommendation that will get you where you want to go.
Give lead time of a month or more to write a letter of recommendation. Not only this is considerate, but it also allows both of you to plan for other responsibilities that may come up.
Choose your recommenders wisely
Your recommenders should be people who know you well. It’s more important to have your direct supervisor than the CEO, or a professor who graded four of your papers rather than a Nobel Prize winner who lectured at your school. The reference is about you—not about how impressive your recommender is.
Think about your strengths
Think about the one to three main points about yourself that you want your references to bring up. If you have multiple recommenders, think about your different strengths each can convey. For example, if you are applying to graduate school after having worked for a while, you may want to have one recommendation letter from a former professor who can focus on your academic aptitude, and another from your boss who can speak about your ability to work in teams.
Reach out (and give a reminder of who you are)
Reach out to the recommender by their preferred method. For most professionals, this means phone or email. And don’t forget to include reminder of who you are. If you’re choosing to correspond by email, include in your message important context your recommender will need. Here are a few suggestions of what to include.
- Bring in a personal connection. Mention that you enjoyed seeing their family pictures on Instagram. Remind them of what you’ve been up to, personally and professionally.
- Tell them why you’re asking. Why are you asking this specific recommender? One student told me that he asked me to be his recommender and not his master’s thesis adviser because my feedback on his writing was more thorough and detailed than any he’d received elsewhere. You might tell a former supervisor that you think they are in the best position to evaluate you because of your work on a project with them from which you learned tremendously. This is a chance to flatter them a bit.
- Remind them of your successes. Remind your professor that you took two classes with them in 2018-2019 and wrote a final paper that got a great grade and inspired your career choice. Remind your former boss that you were employee of the month in January 2020 and brought in five new clients to the firm. In other words, remind them why they would want to write a letter for you, and what details they might want to include. This can also jar their memory if they do not remember you at first.
- Leave them an “out.” Give the recommender an opportunity to say no. That way if they do not think they can give a good reference, they can graciously decline. Try something like, “If you’re too busy to write the letter, I understand.” Or ask them directly, “Do you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation?”
- The due date for the reference. This deadline is integral to helping your recommender get you their materials in time.
What to do when you get a ‘yes’
If the recommender agrees to give you a reference—congratulations! Now it’s time to send some more important information and to bring the recommendation home:
- A description of the position or program you’re applying for.
- Suggestions of the one to three main points you want them to make. Try something like, “My former professor is going to write about my writing skills. I would appreciate if you could comment on my professionalism on the job.”
- To whom they should address the letter, and, if you know the specifics, the particular people will see it. For instance, if there is a hiring committee, tell your recommender who’s on it.
- How they will submit the recommendation (to you, to an online portal, etc.)
- Whether the reference is confidential
- Your résumé
- Any relevant application materials (essays, job description, etc.) that you can provide to help your recommender provide a better reference.
If possible, meet with your recommender to discuss the reference. Ask them what other information they need. You also can ask them for advice on your future plans, making sure to graciously thank them for their insights afterwards.
This is also an opportunity to address any mistakes you’ve made in your work with your recommender. Let them know how you’ve learned from mistakes and corrected them. If your recommender had a role in helping you improve, thank them for doing so. If you want the recommender to address and questionable areas or gaps in your résumé, discuss that, too.
Finally, make sure you let your recommender know the outcome of your job or application process. Along with following up on your recommendation, keep in touch after the process is over. You never know when you’ll need another reference (This may be a good opportunity to put them on your holiday card list).
The secret about successfully navigating references, keep in mind most people want to help you. Unless you’ve shown consistently poor work habits or done something unmentionable on the job or in the classroom, your recommender will want to write you the best reference they can. Your job is to put them in the best position to do so.
Dr. Jill Goldenziel teaches law, leadership, and security studies at Marine Corps University-Command and Staff College. Jill is also a public speaker and consultant.