The Etiquette Of Writing And Receiving Recommendation Letters

At some point in your career, you'll either need a recommendation letter, or you'll be asked to write one. Probably both. The letter might be part of a grad school application, required for a continuing education scholarship or even part of a job application. Whether you're doing the asking or the writing, a certain level of etiquette is required.

letter of recommendation

How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

Get over the idea that you're imposing on someone by asking for a letter of recommendation. The only way to get one is to ask.

  •  Ask the right person. The ideal person to ask for a recommendation letter knows your work well and has the necessary credentials to review your skill set and how it will transfer to this new opportunity. Not every recommendation letter has to come from a professional contact. A recommendation from someone you met volunteering would complement your professional references.

  • Make your request via email. Doing so gives your potential letter-writers the chance to respond on their own time. You don’t want to catch someone off-guard or at a busy moment. Just be clear in your email about your request and how time-sensitive it is (in other words, don’t wait until the last minute to ask)

  • Cultivate references by giving LinkedIn recommendations. Ask past colleagues if they're willing to do a LinkedIn recommendation swap with you. That way, you can see what types of information they're likely to include in a future letter. It's a good idea to have a bench built up for future reference needs.

  •  Flatter in your request. Remind the person why you value his or her opinion. "During my time at XYZ Corp., your mentorship helped me grow as a professional. I respect your opinion and would greatly appreciate your recommendation."

  •  Include talking points. Explain why you need the recommendation letter, and suggest topics the writer might cover that are specific to your experience together. "You had real insight into my critical thinking skills when you reviewed my work on ABC project, and I'm hoping you can shine a spotlight on that."

  •  Be clear about the deadline and submission process. Include your resume or the job posting so the writer can tailor his or her letter to your opportunity.

  •  Provide an easy out. The first person you ask might not be willing or able to write a letter for a variety of reasons—maybe it's against company policy, or perhaps he or she doesn't feel like you worked closely together enough. Avoid awkwardness by providing an out. "I know it's a busy time of year for you, so if this request isn't possible, I certainly understand. Just let me know."

  •  Be prepared to write your own letter. Some professionals are so busy they might suggest you write an initial draft for them to review.

  •  Send a thank-you note to the writer once your recommendation letter is complete.

  •  Pay it forward. When you're asked to write a recommendation letter, remember you were once in the asker's shoes.

How to Write Recommendation Letters

First of all, it's OK to say no. Really. If you don't know the requester well, if you can't honestly provide a positive recommendation, if it's against company policy for anyone outside of HR to provide references, or if you are too swamped, it's OK to politely decline. Remember, when you write a recommendation letter, you're putting your own name on the line. Plus, a lukewarm recommendation might hurt more than help.

When turning down a request, be brief but honest, and suggest an alternative person to ask.

  •  "I'm sorry, but I don't think I worked closely enough with you to provide a reference."
  •  "I don't think I'm the best person to write your reference."
  •  "Unfortunately, my company's policy is for all references to come from HR."
  •  "Right now is just not a good time for me."

If you do feel comfortable writing a recommendation letter, make sure you're clear on the details: When is the letter due? Why is it needed? Make sure you know whether the letter is to be submitted confidentially or whether the requester will see it prior to submission. Ask the requester for a resume to refresh yourself on his or her qualifications, as well as some guidance: "Which of your skills would be most beneficial for me to highlight?"

When you sit down to write the letter, it's fine to follow a standard template:

  •  Begin by stating that it's your pleasure to recommend the candidate.
  •  Explain how long you've known the candidate and in what capacity.
  •  Offer two or three examples of impressive work by the candidate.
  •  Close by including your contact info and making yourself available to discuss the candidate further.

When responding to a recommendation letter request, remember that what goes around comes around career-wise. Someday you might find yourself the one in need of a recommendation—from the person requesting one from you now.

Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market