Student and teacher talking outside.

—Jennifer W., Pasadena City College, California

Glad you asked this question, but I am going to use my “editor” cap to add the word “good” before “recommendation letter” as I know that is really what you meant. Merely asking for a recommendation letter will most likely get you one, but here’s how you can get a good, even great, recommendation.

To answer your question, I went to my dusty files of information that I have provided my students over the years. I found a list of tips that, upon close inspection, seem still to be relevant—although I did freshen them up a bit based on what I have learned since I first wrote them. Seems like the art of asking for a recommendation letter does not go out of style.

1. Cultivate

  • Today begin cultivating relationships with professors, counsellors, supervisors, and leaders of groups in which you participate.
  • In all aspects of your college career, act with respect and integrity. These actions will be the foundation for good recommendations from those with whom you have a relationship.

2. Plan

  • Start early when applying for scholarships, internships, and jobs.
  • Determine which applications require recommendation letters.
  • Mark due dates for applications on your calendar.

3. Prepare

  • Create and keep an updated résumé and send it along when asking for a letter.
  • Keep a list of potential people who could write letters of recommendation for you. Be sure to take their contact information in case you move on and are no longer see them regularly.

4. Ask

  • Ask people who know you well and who have seen you at your best.
  • Explain what you need to be emphasized for the application (people skills, determination, academic progress, etc.).
  • Provide your updated résumé, and all other necessary documents and information. Include postage and pre-addressed envelopes.
  • Ask well in advance if possible and let your recommender know when you need the letter.
  • Protect the integrity of the process by not asking to see or handle the letter unless it is sealed in an envelope.

5. Appreciate

  • Always send a handwritten thank you note to the person who writes the recommendation letter for you.

One last plea: I have written countless recommendation letters for students over the years. I rarely have someone do all of these tips, which often makes it more difficult to write a good letter. At the very least, a genuine, thoughtful handwritten note of gratitude can make up for skipping a tip or two and can help you if you need to ask again.

(*Name changed)