You need a letter of recommendation. Maybe not right this minute, but at some point you will be asked to provide proof that someone who has worked with you recommends you to other people.

Whether you’re applying for a scholarship, an internship, a workshop or seminar, or graduate school, or a new job, chances are you’ll need to ask someone to write a letter on your behalf. Here’s how to do it:

1. Consider what type of letter you need.

What are you applying for and what do the people considering your application need to know about you? For instance, if you are applying for an internship in a physics lab, you need to amass proof that you know your physics. If you are applying for a study abroad program, you probably need to prove that you are personable, eager to try new things, and like challenges.

2. Decide whom to ask.

Who knows you well? Who can best speak of your strengths? You want to ask someone who knows you well enough to write a good,
specific letter of recommendation. Maybe it’s a professor in your field, someone you’ve taken a couple of classes from. Maybe it’s your department chair or advisor. Maybe it’s a graduate student you’ve worked with on a project or someone you’ve worked for. Whoever it is, they should be able to express their familiarity with you and their wholehearted recommendation of you.

3. Ask well.

In almost all circumstances, letters of recommendations are a favor. In other words, while many professors and employers write letters of recommendations, they do so to be helpful, not because it is required of them. With that in mind, when you ask someone to write you a letter, let him or her know you recognize it takes time and effort. Here are some ways to word your request: “I am applying to graduate school programs. Would you feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for me?” or “I appreciate the time you’ve spent mentoring me. I’m applying for some internships this summer. Would you mind writing a letter of recommendation for me?”

4. Ask early.

Ideally, you should ask at least a month before the due date. If you just found out about an opportunity and you need a letter of recommendation quickly, you can always ask—just do so in a way that recognizes the extra burden of a quick turnaround time: “I just found out about a workshop that I want to apply to. It requires a letter of recommendation. Would you be able to write one for me even though the deadline is next Friday? I understand that it’s very short notice.”

5. Make it easy.

You want the person writing your letter to spend time doing just that—not searching for stamps or trying to remember which projects you did for his or her class. Give your letter writer clear directions on what you need, when you need it, and what she or he can expect of the process. (For instance, let your letter writer know if he or she should expect an email from an organization or if you need a hard copy of the letter in a sealed, signed envelope.) Send an email so he or she (and you) will have a record of the details. For example:

“Dear Professor S___,
Thank you so much for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for me. The deadline is January 1st. Organization X will email you a request for the recommendation this week. Their email will provide a code that you will need in order to access my online application. If you don’t hear from Organization X this week, please let me know!”

6. Provide a “brag sheet.”

This is part of making it easy on your letter writer. Write an email or a document that highlights some of your accomplishments that he or she may or may not know about. This will help him or her write a specific recommendation. Your brag sheet might include

  • Explanations and descriptions of papers or projects you completed for your letter writer. (“My final paper, ‘How do you do? Social customs in 19th century Argentina,’ charted the shift…”.
  • Descriptions of challenges you encountered and how you dealt with them. (“The first semester I studied Mandarin Chinese, I struggled to understand even the basic elements, but…”.)
  • Descriptions of accomplishments. (“I was so honored to receive the Resident Advisor of the Month award…”.)
  • Relevant personal information. (“Even though I had to miss two weeks of class due to pneumonia, I managed to…”.)
  • Relevant skills and traits you want to highlight. (“I am applying to Such‐and‐Such University, which specializes in small‐group seminars. I would like them to know about my ability to discuss ideas thoughtfully.”)

7. Give thanks.

Send or give your letter writer a nice, personal thank you note that reflects the personal favor he or she did for you. (Some studentsmake sure their letter writer receives the thank you letter about a week before the first deadline of the letter of reference—in this way, the thank you serves as a kind reminder, as well.) If you budget allows a token of thanks in addition to a note, consider including a gift or gift card.

A good letter of recommendation will make a great impression on a scholarship or selection committee. In fact, in some cases it is the thing that tips the scales in your favor.

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