An educator’s “scoop” on asking for or writing a recommendation

Feb. 1, 2009

Whether a letter of
recommendation is for admission to a program, scholarship, graduate school,
residency program, new job, or special award, how often have you had to ask
for one or been asked to write one? Have you ever had to ask for a letter of
recommendation for one of these reasons and struggled to select the one
person who you think might do the best job for you? On the other hand, have
you had to mull over in your mind how long — and perhaps how well — you have
known the person asking for your reference? Either way, doing the asking or
the recommending takes preparation.

A career in the health professions involves learning
the process of socialization in the workplace. Seasoned educators and
practitioners generally have the opportunity to provide guidance and serve
as mentors for the newcomers to the classroom or the workplace. One of the
challenges for both educators, lab managers, and lab directors is to provide
opportunities for students or employees to participate in and experience the
value of volunteerism and community involvement. Activities and groups in
which people participate give expression to their views and ideals. An
individual’s personality and attitude can have a large influence on his
success. The person who has been able to socialize in these ways throughout
his education and into his profession will experience its impact for
success. He will have no problem asking for others to provide
recommendations for him, nor will he hesitate to provide references for
others with similar socialization skills.

Requester or requestee?

The person requesting a letter of recommendation
needs to prepare for this task, thinking carefully about the process.
The first consideration of the requester is to choose the best person to
ask. This may be quite a challenge to an individual who has made little
effort to get to know faculty members or work colleagues. A professor or
supervisor who knows the applicant well will be able to write a good
letter given the correct information.

The best way for a person to make a request for a
recommendation is to provide:

  • a formal request for the letter either verbal or written;
  • the deadline/due date (and enough lead time for caller/writer to
  • the name/address of person/institution to whom/which call should be
    made/letter should be
  • a description of position/program to which requester is applying and
    career goals;
  • specific forms/instructions;
  • an up-to-date resume indicating education/job history;
  • suggestions about what is important to emphasize, including
    activities/accomplishments; and
  • a stamped, addressed envelope.

The best way for the recommender to help the
applicant succeed is to explain how their acquaintance exists and her
qualifications for being asked to write the letter. Remember that written
comments are more valuable to reviewers than boxes checked on a form.

In general, the recommendation should list the
applicant’s exceptional qualities and skills. Emphasizing key points and
examples of the applicant’s qualifications should confirm competence and
build credibility. If the applicant has completed special projects, a brief
explanation of the project(s) and the applicant’s role is valuable.

Note personal traits (i.e., motivation, perseverance,
interpersonal communication, and any other outstanding characteristics) that
may be pertinent to the person’s potential for success. The recommendation
should be succinct and end with a strong statement that is not generalized
praise. Future employers or committees reviewing recommendations look for
indications that an applicant can reach set goals and be a successful health

If you have little experience in writing a letter of
reference, several resources exist that may be helpful. Certainly, college
and university career centers as well as public libraries are places to
start since they provide many different types of services. Some useful
websites (i.e.,
) offer assistance with pre-written
recommendation letters or software.

Do not forget that the age-old art of proofreading
should accompany that new version of spell check. While electronic spell
check is a boon to modern communication, it will approve correct spellings
but miss your use of inaccurate wording (i.e., their, they’re, and there;
to, two, and too).

Some final suggestions include these:

  • In the event that you have reservations about writing a
    recommendation, perhaps for someone
    you do not know well, a
    simple regret can be expressed.
  • Letter writers, keep a copy of your recommendation on file in the
    event that another request is
    made. Using a previous letter as
    a guide is easier than beginning from scratch.
  • To those receiving a letter of recommendation, a follow-up thank-you
    or your good news about
    acceptance is a gesture that can make
    your letter writer’s day.

Jeanne M. Isabel, MSEd, MT(ASCP), CLSpH(NCA), is program director and associate professor for Clinical Laboratory Sciences at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

Further reading

  1. Varnadoe LA. Asking for a Recommendation, MT Today, 1992;11.
  2. Recommendation letters.
    . Accessed January 8, 2009.