Recommendations and references have a similar role in a selective process. Typically, recommendations are formal, confidential letters provided to a graduate school or other academic-based program while references are used by employers to confirm qualifications before making an offer.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation provide a detailed and persuasive argument for why and how the subject of the letter (you) should be admitted to the program you are applying for.
Typically letters of recommendation are used as part of an application, most often for advanced degree programs but also for selective programs like fellowships, scholarships, or experiential learning. For example, a letter of recommendation is required for applications to the Yawkey Nonprofit Internship Program.
In order to ensure honest comments, these letters are usually sent directly to the admissions office or selection committee, rather than provided to the applicant to submit with other materials. Some recommenders also choose to provide a copy to the person they are writing the letter about.
Who To Ask
Ask those who can write about you and your relevant strengths and submit it on time.
You may want or need to ask different people depending on what you are applying for and what they require. Some may require a personal recommender as well as an academic or professional one.
- Ask those who know you well: they will be able to write a more comprehensive and detailed letter
- Ask those who can write a strong and relevant recommendation: since the point is to make a case on your behalf, you want a recommender to think well of you particularly in areas that are relevant for what you are applying for
- Ask those who can submit the letter on time: a glowing letter that arrives late won’t help you
If you like to plan ahead and know you’ll need recommendations in the future, have an honest conversation with those you would like to ask for a recommendation well in advance of starting your application.
- Would they be able to be a strong recommender?
- If not, is there anything you can work to improve or to help them get to know you better?
- What are the qualities or criteria that they use to determine whether or not they can provide a strong recommendation?
When To Ask
Ask at least three weeks in advance of the submission date.
Give them plenty of time to make a decision about writing the letter and so that it is as persuasive as possible. Make sure they are aware of the official deadline in addition to your timeline, especially if you would like them to submit the letter early.
How To Ask
Ask in an email.
Wait for an Honest Answer
First, the person has time to consider your request. You want all recommendations to be strong ones. If someone you ask feels as though they cannot write a strong recommendation, it is better that they decline so that you can ask someone else.
Package the Details
Second, you can include all of the necessary details as well as additional helpful information all in one place. This makes it easier for them to reference what they need to know and to make a decision. If the topic initially comes up during a meeting or conversation, send a follow-up email as a formal request and so that you can provide all of the details they will need.
- What you are applying for
- Any requirements in content or format
- Timeline, your preferred timeline and/or the actual deadline
- How and/or where to submit the letter
- Why you chose them as a recommender, either generally or for a specific program
- A copy of your resume
- A copy of items that speak to why you are applying, either for the field generally or for a specific program; such as a personal statement or application essay
- Anything else that helps
Email Chain for Follow Up
Third, it makes it easier to follow up, provide additional information, or remind them about upcoming deadlines.
Manage up. It is your job to prompt your recommender to write and submit the letter on time. If needed, send a gentle reminder a week before the deadline and ask if they need more information.
After your recommender submits the letter, be sure to follow up and thank them.
Asking for Future Applications
Ask while still at BU and have them stored by a dossier service.
If you think you might need letters of recommendation in the future, it is better to request them while you are still at BU and have good relationships with faculty or others you want to ask. Dossier service platforms like Interfolio will keep the letters confidential until you are ready for them to be submitted to an admissions or selection committee.
Request: Write a Letter of Recommendation
I hope you are doing well. I wanted to let you know that I was really inspired after _____________, and it has led me to decide to pursue ___________. I am in the process of applying for ________. My application requires a recommendation letter from a ______ [their role: professor, former or current supervisor, etc.] and since __________ [the reason you are asking this person specifically] I was wondering if you would be willing to write a strong recommendation about me for my application.
If so, the application is due __________, which allows four weeks to complete the letter. I would also be happy to meet with you if you would like to learn more about why I am applying to ____________ and what skills make me a good fit for it. Thank you in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing back regarding your decision.
Follow Up: Deadline Reminder
Thank you again for agreeing to write a recommendation letter for my application to ________. I wanted to just check in as the deadline is ________, just one week from today.
Please let me know if there’s any additional information that would be helpful to you in writing the letter.
References are individuals who can speak to your work to a prospective employer.
Generally, you will be asked for 3-5 references by HR or the hiring manager after you have gone through the interview process. These individuals will be contacted to share feedback about working with you, either with a short survey or in a phone conversation.
The questions typically focus on employment facts (job title, job duties, punctuality, length of employment) and workplace performance (reliability, integrity, professionalism, productivity).
Who To Ask
Ask those who can speak highly of you and your qualifications, such as reliability, initiative, work habits, knowledge, experience in the field, and other relevant qualifications. This might include former or current supervisors, professors, and coaches. You may want different references for different types of jobs.
For supervisors, consider not only those from internships but also summer or part-time jobs, volunteer work, and campus jobs. You can also include others at an organization, such as the lead for a project you contributed to.
Sometimes employers specifically ask about speaking with a current supervisor. You might not want to share their contact information, either because your current supervisor does not know you are applying elsewhere or because you do not have a good relationship with them and you feel they might give you a bad reference.
In either case, make sure your reference list includes at least one supervisor, ideally the next most recent, and someone else from the current organization.
When To Ask
Ask when you begin applying to positions, with additional check-in emails as employers request your references.
Follow up with each of your references when you hear from the employer asking for their information.
Let them know that they will soon be contacted and by whom (if you know) and send a copy of your resume and cover letter. Also include information about the employer and the position, such as the responsibilities, key qualifications, and a brief description of how your experience is a good fit.
Follow up after you have accepted a position with an update and a thank you.
Occasionally, organizations request a list of references as part of your application or early in the process. Although rare, it does happen. We do not recommend including references on your resume. You only want to supply references when asked or instructed to do so.
Create the list as a formal application document, following the format and style you used with your resume and cover letter. Use the same header with your name and contact information.
For the list itself, include the following for each reference
- Job title
- Organization name
- Phone number, including any extension
- Email address
If the person has since left the organization or the role, include a note about what role they were in when you worked together.
Request: Be a Reference
I hope you are doing well. I wanted to let you know that since we last spoke, I am currently job searching. I am in the process of applying to ________. I have been asked to provide references as part of the hiring process. I was wondering if you would be willing to serve as a strong reference for me.
If yes, please share your preferred email address and phone number. It seems like they will be conducting reference checks within the next ______ weeks. I have attached my updated resume, cover letter, and the job description for this role. Thank you in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing back regarding your decision.