Recommendation Letters: Types, Importance and How to Get One

Remember the time when you were applying for college or grad school and recommendation letters were required? Well, references can be just as useful when seeking a job and are a normal part of many employment applications. Whatever the occasion, a recommendation letter offers an outside perspective on your character and skills. Because of this, you should be prepared when asked for one.

Below we describe the different types of recommendations, who you should ask for recommendations, and how to go about requesting them. In general practice, recommenders are busy professionals who may be willing to vouch for you but with little time to draft a letter. Because of this, you will often be asked to draft a letter yourself that they can read and sign off on.

Types of Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters come in a few varieties, but most will conform to three types:

1. Professional/Employment Recommendation Letter

In a job hunt, this is the most vital type of recommendation. As you might have guessed, these letters address your work performance, and how great you were at your previous job. Volunteer coordinators can also give professional references as well.

Because it’s so vital, you should make an effort to have at least three past work references. These will come from current or past employers. Potential recommenders can include your former bosses, co-workers or even employees who have worked for you.

2. Character Recommendation Letter

This is typically a non-work reference but doesn’t always have to be. Character references should highlight your personal qualities, such as your sense of generosity in your community or your willingness to help others.

Certain job openings might also require a character reference, especially roles in the caregiving industry. They should be written by people whom you know and trust from your personal life, such as a good friend or faith leader.

3. Academic Recommendation Letter

These are mostly used when applying to colleges or for scholarships and are meant to highlight an applicant’s current achievements.

An academic reference can also help those that have recently graduated and are just entering the workforce. A good recommendation can help you land a job, especially if that teacher has previous experience in your industry.

Who Should You Ask for a Recommendation Letter?

The most useful recommendation letters come from people that you have recently worked for or studied with. Also, depending on the role ahead of you, a variety of recommendations can help hiring managers see how you relate to people in varying walks of life.

That being said, it takes time to build a good rapport with people. If you haven’t done so already, begin developing relationships as soon as you can. A good relationship is as good as gold, and having willing recommenders is a great way to be prepared. When making a list of potential people to write recommendations, take the following into account:

  • Has he or she known you long enough to properly represent you?
  • Does his or her skillset correlate to the job you’re applying for?
  • Have you worked closely with them, e.g. on a project or a team?
  • Are they negative or would they have any negative feelings about you?
  • Do they have a heartfelt personality that will show through in the letter?

As your job search unfolds, it’s pertinent to keep your writers in the know. Since there’s a chance they will receive phone calls from prospective employers, you may even consider emailing them the job description(s) for which you are applying. This way, when they receive the call, they’ll be prepared to answer accordingly.

How to Request a Recommendation Letter

You always want to think about how you will approach your references. First and foremost, it’s good practice to give people two months (and at the absolute minimum, a month) to write your letter. You don’t want to wait until you begin applying to ask for a letter. There are three primary reasons for this.

  1. Your potential recommender is likely busy with his or her job or personal life. Giving them a proper heads up will allow them the opportunity to schedule an appropriate time to write your letter.
  2. You don’t want your writers to feel rushed. More often than not, a rushed letter becomes a forced letter. And a forced letter can come across as insincere.
  3. When you do get your letters, it’s a good idea to have them readily available. Having them ready to go means you can apply for a new job without losing time. Conversely, you may not even know you’re being considered for a promotion at your current job. If you already have the required letters on-hand, you’re ready to apply.

There are three ways you can approach people. If your recommender isn’t close—either geographically or personally—then sending an email is fine. This will give them the freedom to opt-out. If you are closer to your recommender, it’s best to ask in person or give him or her a phone call.

When you approach your potential recommender, it’s okay to ask for specifics. He or she certainly doesn’t want to waste time writing a letter that isn’t appropriate. If you need your recommendation to emphasize your leadership skills, feel free to ask the writer to focus on that specifically.

When approaching people, it’s a good idea to tell them why you are asking them in particular and relate your history with that person, including what you’ve learned from them. Make sure they understand what your future goals and aspirations are. You could even provide the writer with your resume as a reference tool. When all is said and done, write these people thank-you notes.

Accessibility: The Modern Day Approach to Recommendation Letters

In today’s job market where Google Search is king, you should focus on building your online presence. And what better place to do that than on LinkedIn? LinkedIn offers an easy-to-use recommendations tool. You can’t edit these recommendations once they’re up, but you can opt to display them or not, so there’s nothing to lose. Hiring managers will most likely do some online digging on you, and that can be an advantage. The reality is that if you have these recommendations posted, it will show potential employers that you are prepared, current, and on top of your game before you even step foot in the interview.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it’s never too early to start crafting relationships with your future recommenders. Are you doing really well in your finance course? Talk to your teacher. Did you knock an awesome project out of the park? Then ask your manager to put it in writing. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute.

A solid recommendation letter can mean the difference between admission and denial, or even a promotion.


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