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The Top 5 Do's and Don'ts for Letters of Recommendation

Whether you need a recommendation for college, an internship, or a job, you need to request it at the ease of your recommenders. Here are some do's and don'ts!

Whether it’s for college applications or for an internship in college, it can be awkward and confusing to ask someone for a letter of recommendation. But the best thing to do is to keep your purpose in mind: to make you look like a good candidate for whatever it is you’re applying for. The person writing the recommendation for you has the same goal and are doing you a huge favor, so it’s important that you do whatever you can to make their job easier. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do when requesting your letters.

Do: Ask formally and in advance

When requesting a letter of recommendation, don’t just send a text message. Write a professional email, pen a letter, make a call, or ask in person. You want the recommender to see you in a good light, so don’t do anything to compromise your professionalism. Make sure that your recommender has enough notice to complete your request as well. I’d say four weeks is the sweet spot for an internship, but if you’re a high school student who needs one for college applications, the earlier, the better. Be sure to include the following if you choose to send an email:

  • A formal greeting and signature
  • Information about who/what you need the recommendation for
  • Information about yourself and your relevant past
  • A due date

When you reach out for a letter of recommendation, you need to include the date by which the letter is to be submitted. If you don’t, the letter could be forgotten and they may be forced to leave you with nothing.  

Related: Top 5 Questions About Recommendation Letters

Do: Set a timeline

Setting a timeline should give you, the recommender, and your schools or organizations time to create, send, receive, and process the letter. While you should consider all these steps, it’s important not to give your recommender too much to remember. Give them a personal due date a week before the official due date to account for processing and emergencies. Also, be sure to follow up if you haven’t heard back about the letter three to five days before the deadline. This letter likely won’t be their top priority, so you need to make it yours. Here’s a way to phrase the timing request:

“I will need this letter by May 26 at the latest, so if this date is too near, please let me know as soon as possible.”

And here’s a way to phrase your inevitable check-in email:

“Dear [insert name of recommender], 

Thank you again for offering to write me a letter of recommendation. As the deadline is quickly approaching, I wanted to confirm that you’ll have it in to [recipient] by [date]. 

Thank you in advance,

[Your name]”

Do: Write an outline

The only person with all your strengths and experiences down to memory is you, so don’t leave your writer with nothing to work with. A bulleted list works, but many recommenders will opt to have you write down your notable accomplishments and send it to them to rework however they see fit. It can feel like cheating—believe me, I didn’t do this until I had three recommenders tell me outright they needed me to. But if there’s any reason the recommender disagrees with this tactic, they will surely let you know—and you can let them know if the college or position you’re applying to requires the letter to be written anonymously. Here are all the things you should add to your outline to help your letter writer out:

  • Advanced/honors courses you’ve taken
  • Jobs, sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars you’ve participated in
  • Awards you’ve won
  • Leadership positions you’ve held
  • Hobbies you enjoy
  • Adjectives you’d use to describe yourself

Don’t: Lie

The point of a letter of recommendation is to showcase your strengths and how they make you a good fit for a school or role—as testified by someone else. Don’t try to give your recommender false information to make yourself look better. If you’ve chosen the right recommender, it’s likely a teacher or someone else who knows you well enough to speak to your character without you feeding them the words. Trying to force your way into a college or position you wouldn’t be a good fit for otherwise will only do you harm.  

Don’t: Try to overuse a vague recommendation

It can be tempting to try to make a one-size-fits-all recommendation if you’re outlining it yourself or if you ask your recommender to write it that way, but the whole point of a recommendation is to show you’re a great fit for a specific college or role and that someone who has experience working with you agrees. It’s hard to be a perfect fit for everything, so this will in no way work in your favor—and whoever is reading the letter will most likely see through it. 

Related: Who and How to Ask for College Recommendation Letters

With your best self in mind and gratitude for your recommender, you can do your part to make your letters of recommendation as accurate and timely as possible. And don’t forget to go back and thank your recommenders formally when it’s all said and done!

Need a break from reading blogs and articles? Check out more great advice on the CollegeXpress YouTube channel!

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