On Making the Big Ask: How to Effectively Request a Recommendation

On Making the Big Ask: How to Effectively Request a Recommendation

Application season is upon us, and many instructors, advisors, and professors are experiencing the “recommendation rush.” This happens a few times every year, where students frantically begin emailing their professors, running into office hours, and grabbing instructors after class to inquire about a letter of recommendation for a graduate program or a reference for the job search. It’s an exciting time for both professional staff and students, because we truly do enjoy writing on a student’s behalf and sharing in their postgraduate successes.

But there’s an art to making the big ask, and it’s what separates a good recommendation from a glowing one. I want to share with you some examples of inquiries I’ve received in the past, and give you a few tips on how to effectively ask for a recommendation or reference to truly ensure a great review of you, your work, and your aspirations.

Get to know your recommender

I’ve received many requests for recommendations and professional references since beginning my journey as a student affairs practitioner. The first step toward making the big ask, however, comes well before asking for the recommendation. It’s incredibly important that the recommender knows you really, really well; that way, they can speak to not only your accomplishments inside and outside of the classroom but also specific traits and qualities that you have that would make you successful in a specific graduate program or professional role. Take the time to get to know your professors. Visit their office hours, engage with them outside of the classroom, work on research projects with them, or embark on a service project that they’re leading. The better your recommender knows you, the better off you’ll be.

You can never provide too much information

When you’re preparing to make the “big ask,” be sure to give your recommender everything that they might need up front. I’ve had folks come to me for a letter of recommendation without disclosing what the letter is for, and it puts both the student and me in a tough spot. I have to have a tough conversation with the student, turning down the request and telling them why, and the student is stuck looking for someone else to go to bat for them.

Your request should include, at the very least, basic information about the program or position you’re applying for and your resume. Direct the recommender to the university’s website. Send your recommender the job description for the role you’re hoping to accept after graduation. Those valuable clues provide your recommender with a better idea of which skills and experiences in particular to highlight in a letter or reference call.

I always tell students to include their resumes, too, because it’s a great refresher for your recommender. While we might know you well, we may not know about every accomplishment or award you’ve earned in your time with us. By seeing everything you’ve done in 1-2 pages, we can truly speak to your talents.

Thank you!

Your recommender is doing you a big favor by providing you with a letter or with a reference that speaks to your abilities. They are going above and beyond for you by putting their name out there on your behalf. Be sure to thank them! A well-crafted email, a small token of your appreciation, or a handwritten note goes a long way. Make sure your recommender knows that they are appreciated.

Have you asked for a letter of recommendation? What are some of your “lessons learned” from the process?

About the Author

Kimberly White is an academic advisor to pre-nursing students at the University Academic Success Center & Exploratory Advising at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She also serves as a Professional Development Advisor to the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women, Alabama Alpha chapter. She is a recent graduate of the HESA program at Boston College and resides in Birmingham, Alabama. You can find Kimberly on Twitter at @whiteoi, on LinkedIn, or on her blog (Leadership Development and Life in the Yellowhammer State).

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