'Tis the Season for Letters of Recommendation

posted Feb 3, 2014, 4:12 PM by Pamela Posz   [ updated Nov 26, 2014, 12:02 PM ]
The application for the Terry and Penny Kastanis  Scholarships in Library and Information Technology is now open. The final deadline for all materials is  March 7, 2014 by 4:00 pm. 

If you wish to apply for the scholarship, you will need to write an essay and submit 2 letters of recommendation. 1 letter should be from a Sacramento City College Professor and the other can be from a library mentor.

For the LIBT 498 class that I'm teaching, one of the first homework assignments is to collect 2 letters of recommendation. The following information is from the handout I've created for the class about Letters of Recommendation. I wanted to share it here since many people don't know how to go about asking for these letters. 

Professional References and Letters of Recommendation

There are a variety of situations where you may need to ask someone to serve as a reference for you or write you a letter of recommendation. For the most part these will be references for a job or applications for school and you would contact an instructor, employer or mentor.

Don’t be shy about asking for a recommendation if you have done “A” level work. People are usually happy to help out others in these situations. If I like a student, employee or coworker and feel that they've done an excellent job, I’m always happy to help someone out by serving as a reference or writing a letter of recommendation. I remember how happy I was when people offered to do this for me.

You need to get letters from people who have no reservations about your work and can strongly recommend you. You do not want recommendations from people who have mixed feelings about you, this will come across in the letter of recommendation.

As with everything else, there is etiquette for these types of requests.

Always Ask First

Always ask before you list someone as a reference. Don’t assume that they will be willing to do this if you haven’t talked to your reference first. Additionally, they will be much better prepared to answer questions about you if you let them know when they may expect to get a call about you.

Ask Again if any Time has Passed

If it's been a while since you originally asked for the letter or if it's been a while since you've seen your reference, check before you use that reference again. You never know if people will continue to want to recommend you and it's better to know. 

Ask for a Letter Before You Leave a Position

If you are going to leave a position and feel that your work has been good, ask for a letter before you go. Your reference can write you a generic letter of recommendation that you can use in your job hunt. Don't let time pass before you ask for a letter because the letter will be much stronger and more detailed if you have recent contact with your reference.  If you wait until time has passed, the letter will not be as strong as it would be if you requested it within a short time frame.

Ask for a Letter When the Class is Over

If you are a student and you have done well in the class (i.e. received an A), consider asking your teacher for a letter of recommendation when the class is over. As with leaving a position, you should do this as soon as possible after the class has ended. If too much time has passed, the instructor is much less likely to remember you and your work. I would only ask for a letter from an instructor if you have done well in the class.

Your Letters Should be Somewhat Recent

If possible, you should submit fairly recent letters of recommendation. Your application will not be as strong if all of your references are 10 or more years old. This means that you should continue to develop new references and keep in touch with previous references as you progress in your career. You can also contact old references and ask for an updated letter if you need a more recent version.

References from sources other than jobs and school are also perfectly acceptable references, particularly when the skills transfer to the work for which you are applying. For example, if you were out of the workforce but volunteered regularly, you could ask your volunteer supervisor or other volunteers to provide you with a reference.

What if they say no?

If a person refuses your request, say thank you and move on. You probably don’t want a letter of recommendation from someone who has reservations or concerns about your work. The letter they would provide is likely to be negative or really basic and in either case isn't likely to improve your application.  Find someone else to recommend you who is willing to talk about you in glowing terms.

This is a situation where I would not ask for feedback about why you didn't get the letter. You may make the person uncomfortable and/or angry which will not help you in your pursuit of a job, particularly because they may have a professional connection to the job or situation for which you are applying. The library world is a small place. You never know who is personally or professionally connected. Simply thank them for their time and move on.

Make the Request via Email

Email is the best way to make these requests for a number of reasons.

It will allow you to spend some time crafting a nice formal request and this is a situation that calls for a higher level of formality than you might normally use. Even if you are friends with your reference, I would aim for a more formal request.

I have found that most people are less stressed by doing this via email rather than in person. When you use email, you can spend more time crafting your request. Additionally, if the person doesn't wish to serve as one of your references, it’s considerably less awkward to either reject someone or receive a rejection via email than in person.

Email also offers the advantage that if the person receives a lot of requests, it will be easier for them to keep track of each request.

If you still wish to make the request in person, make sure to do so in private when there aren't any other people around. I have had students ask me for a letter in front of other people. If I didn't wish to provide a letter of reference I am either forced to lie to them to avoid an uncomfortable situation, or say no which is also extremely awkward.

What is the Letter for?

Make sure to let your reference know what you need the letter for. They’ll be able to tailor it to different situations and create a much stronger recommendation.

Is it a generic letter of recommendation? These letters aren't for a specific position or application, but instead generally discuss skills and abilities of the individual. They will address qualities of the individual as an employee and can be used in a variety of job applications. A generic letter allows the applicant to submit a letter without having to ask their reference for a new letter for every position for which they are applying. If someone writes you a generic letter of recommendation, make sure to keep copies of the letter, both in print and electronic formats.

Is the letter for an application to another college or graduate school? These letters will discuss the academic abilities of the individual and how successful they are likely to be in an academic program.

As you might imagine, the format of these letters would be quite different.

Have a Letter Ready to Go

I have found that when I have asked for a reference letter, the person would often ask me to write a draft letter of reference that they could edit and use to create the official version. This is extremely common. When you’re getting references from others, you should have some sort of basic letter drafted that you can offer them to use as a starting point. They can edit this letter to match what you are applying for.  Make sure to tell them specifically what the letter is for so that they can tailor it for the application.

If there are specific requirements for the letter, make sure that those are covered and that you provide that information to your reference.

The draft should include information about how you know the person and what they would be able to recommend about you, such as strong customer service or technology skills.

There are certain categories of information that would be relevant in almost any letter, such as your technology or people skills and on the job experience.

Only include information about yourself that the person would know via direct contact. For example I can’t include information that I’ve heard from others about you. I can only include personal experiences that I've had with you.

The text of your letter should be about 1 page (at most) and include 1-2 paragraphs about yourself.  Don’t worry about formatting it as a letter. Your reference will take the text of the letter, edit it as needed, format it, print it on official letterhead, and sign it.

Don’t Forget the Thank You

As a courtesy, if you make it through the application process and actually interview for a position, make sure to let your reference know what has happened with a phone call or email. This will alert them to prepare for a call they may receive about you within the next week or so.

And if you get the position or are accepted into that academic program, make sure to thank your reference. I love to hear when I played any sort of role in the success of another person.

Web Resources on Letters of Recommendation

The following are a few useful web resources on this topic:


·         Sample Letters of Recommendation



·         Writing a Reference Letter (With Examples)



·         Top 10 Sample Recommendation Letters