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How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation (The Right Way)

"Will you be my reference for this job/internship?"

As a professor, faculty advisor, and volunteer, I get asked this a lot. Sometimes, students who ask me for a reference are those students I've known for several years, both in and out of the classroom, and I know enough about their career aspirations that I can easily and comfortably give them a solid, positive recommendation.

Many times, however, a student will approach me for a recommendation when they have been one of 250 students in my class, sitting somewhere near the back of the lecture hall and rarely talking. In those cases, the only thing I can say about them is "They are a solid B student." 

That's hardly the recommendation they’re looking for, and it always creates the difficult position of having to say, "I'm sorry, but I'm not the best person to recommend you."

We all need references and recommendations. Strong, positive endorsements help us promote our personal brand and provide us with the professional support we need to succeed in reaching our goals.

But we can't presume we can merely ask for a recommendation and expect to get a great one. Recommendations are earned through hard work, continuous achievement, and respect. And it's an ongoing process—the recommendation you'll want three years from now should be considered today so you can begin earning that recommendation.

It sounds like a daunting task, doesn't it? Don’t worry. Recommendations can easily be earned through three simple but continuous steps:

  1. Make a List

Start building your list of potential references today for the recommendations you might need in three to five years. Include people you're currently working with or have worked within the recent past. This list can include your current supervisor, co-workers, a member of your church or volunteer organization, or one of your professors. These are the people who have seen your work ethic and can talk about your dedication, hard work, and results.

Be realistic. Choose individuals who have seen you in action or can write honestly about your efforts. If you’re one student amongst 250 in a class, then make sure to introduce yourself. Go to your instructor’s office hours and discuss the class material. If you’re looking for a professional recommendation think about colleagues or supervisors who work with you consistently.

If your list seems pretty short (or non-existent), make a dream list of those people you admire—people who have been successful and are role-models for your goals and aspirations. Use your social networks to get connected. Once you start building these connections, talk to them about their career and start building a relationship with them so they learn more about you, your goals, and your achievements.

Remember building your list doesn't automatically guarantee a positive, glowing reference. But by creating a list today, you can begin performing to high standards and earn the respect and, hopefully, positive recommendation of the individual on your list.

  1. Prove Yourself

You earn your recommendations and endorsements every single day. Your hard work helps you achieve your goals, and when you perform to your highest standards, your potential recommender can see how your diligence earns you their reference. Work hard. Get noticed for having a dedicated, passionate approach to maintaining the highest of standards. Lead teams or group projects. Get involved on committees. Participate in class. Volunteer. And, yes, promote yourself and your achievements.

  1. Know How to Ask

When it finally comes time to ask for that well-earned reference letter, make sure you do it right. Ask politely, and provide details related to the nature of the recommendation. Is it for a job, a promotion, graduate school acceptance, a volunteer position, or something else? Provide a copy of your most recent resume and highlight some of the key attributes and reference points you'd like to have emphasized. 

When you make the ask, don’t assume that they’ll necessarily say yes. If you are asking someone you respect for a reference, chances are some of your friends and colleagues are as well. You may have to go with your second or third choice for a reference if your first choice has already been taken. That’s why when you make the ask, you should give your reference plenty of lead-time. Reference letters take time to write, so provide as much advance notice as possible.

If you follow these three principles, you’ll be on the right track to earning that well-deserved recommendation!

About the Author

Ric Sweeney is an Associate Professor in the Marketing Department at the University of Cincinnati's Carl H. Lindner College of Business, specializing in Principles of Marketing, Advertising, Services Marketing, Branding, and Promotions. A passionate educator, Ric serves as faculty advisor for the UC AMA, CATALYST Marketing, and Project Heal, and is a faculty fellow for the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. He has also been a recipient of numerous awards for inspiring the next generation of great marketers, including the Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Barbour Award for Faculty/Student Relations, two of the University’s top awards for excellence. Ric has been a devoted volunteer for the American Marketing Association since 1996, serving locally as a Cincinnati Chapter Board Member and President. From there, he took his AMA volunteering to the national organization. Ric elevated his volunteering for the AMA to its highest level, serving as a Member of the Board of Directors and as the Chairman of the Board. Ric's impact on marketing, just within his AMA volunteering alone, is reflected in the fact that the AMA's annual national Volunteer of the Year award has his name attached to the honor. In 2018, Ric was named a “Cincinnati Marketing Legend” by the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Marketing Association.

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