Five Ways NOT to Ask For a Recommendation Letter (or Reference)

Posted June 12, 2013 by

Rec letterApplication packages for college and graduate school often require a formal letter of recommendation from professional contacts who can attest to your readiness, work ethic, and intellectual talents. And when your formal education is complete and you’re making your way up the career ladder, references will play a strong role in your ability to win over potential employers and earn their trust.

But references and recommendation letters are not always easy things to ask for, and they can come with some inconvenience to the person you want in your corner. So how can you overcome your aversion to asking for favors, put your shyness aside, show the respect your mentors deserve, and get the backing you need to get ahead?

The answer will depend on your relationship with the person, of course. But regardless of the close, warm friendship or cool, formal respect you have for each other, here are five ways NOT to approach your target.

In a Hurry

Don’t assault your mentor or boss while she’s racing down the hall from one meeting to the next. And never state your needs in a way that leaves your mentor no room to say no. Nobody likes to be ambushed, so place your request in an email, schedule a formal appointment to sit down with her in her office, or approach her when she’s in a position to give you her full attention.

On Short Notice

It’s best to give your mentor a deadline of at least a month to provide the favor you’re asking for. Two weeks is the minimum time frame necessary for diplomacy (and a likely positive outcome). And “Can you have this ready for me by tomorrow?” is unacceptable.

As a Demand

Never tell someone what to do when you’re also asking that person for a favor. And when it comes to bosses and mentors, be very careful with demands of any kind. Frame your request politely and respectfully, acknowledge the person’s right to say no, and thank him no matter what response he gives you.

With an Unclear set of Expectations in Mind

If you’re asking someone to do something for you, be very clear with that person about what you want and make sure you provide her with all the tools, information, and resources she’ll need. And offer these things—don’t wait for her to ask. Your current or former boss should be handed a clear list of your major accomplishments and the projects you completed while you worked for her. A professor writing you a recommendation letter will need a similar list of your most important projects, best papers, and the contributions you made to class discussions. Both parties should be given clear deadlines and mailing addresses (if applicable). In either case, you can always offer to write the text of the letter yourself and simply have the person review and sign it.

With No Intent to Follow Through

Be ready to take several additional steps after your receive confirmation and support. First, thank your mentor clearly, and do so in writing. A small handwritten card is a nice gesture. You may want to thank the person immediately after they agree to support you, and then thank them again after your reference is in hand.

Second, keep the person in the loop as you continue your job search or graduate program application process. Let her know the outcome of the application she helped you with, and when you do ultimately gain admission to your program or land the job of your dreams, send her the good news and let her know that her support played a key role in your success.

LiveCareer (, home to America’s #1 Resume Builder, connects job seekers of all experience levels and career categories to all the tools, resources, and insider tips needed to win the job. You can connect with us on our website or social networks for even more tips and advice on all things career and resume-related.

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