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The perfect reference can be key to landing an amazing job, internship, scholarship, or college admission. The rest of your application allows you to show who you are personally, but a letter of reference provides invaluable insight as to how others view you and your accomplishments. An ideal letter of reference should be someone else backing up what you said about yourself in the other parts of application, and it’s one of the highest forms of endorsement out there.

The first thing you should do is determine if a letter of recommendation is required or recommended. Many times the application will specify how many letters (usually 1-2) and sometimes even who should write them. A college or scholarship application will almost definitely specify an academic teacher as one of the references. Make sure to read the application carefully as, depending on the program you are applying to, they may further specify what type of teacher should write the letter of recommendation, such as a STEM teacher or an English teacher. They may also ask for a letter from a guidance counselor. A third letter of rec can usually come from a community member. This includes anyone else including a coach, religious leader, someone you volunteer with, or a past employer. For a job or internship, they may specify that a letter of recommendation from a past supervisor is necessary.

When it comes to ultimately choosing who you want to write the letter, you should think carefully about who knows you the best and also fulfills the requirements of the application. The best letter of recommendation is going to come from someone who actually knows you and can confidently vouch for your skills and talents on your behalf.

One thing to remember is that a letter of recommendation should never come from someone directly related to you and some apps may even specify “no relatives.” Even if they do not specify, it’s best to steer clear of family when asking for letters of recommendation since letters from those not related to you tend to carry more weight because there is less of a conflict of interest. You want to avoid being the person with the awkward letter of recommendation from Mom or Dad, going on for pages and pages about how you’ve been fit for this opportunity since you were in diapers.

After you’ve figured out the requirements and who you are going to ask, the next step is actually asking them. This is often the most daunting step when trying to get a letter of recommendation. If possible, try to ask them in person. It may feel awkward but chances are they will want to help you and will be glad you asked. If asking in person is not possible, send them an email politely asking them to write a letter recommendation. Make sure the email is free of any typos or grammatical errors (since this might be the last thing they see from you before they write the letter!)

In person or in the email you should give them some information about what you are applying for (why you need the letter of recommendation) and the deadline. Telling them what you are applying for can make writing a letter easier for them as they can tailor which of your skills and accomplishments pertain to the application rather than writing a generic letter.

Make sure to ask well in advance of the deadline, the earlier the better. This is especially true if you are asking a teacher, specifically a popular one, since they most likely will have a whole list of letters to write for their students. By asking early, it shows that you are responsible and that you value their time. It is not uncommon to ask for a letter months in advance so there is no pressure on the letter writer to rush.

If they say that they are unable to write a letter of recommendation for you, try not to take it personally. They may have other things going on in their life that they need to focus on or they may feel that they do not know you well enough to do it justice. If this is the case, thank them and then try asking someone else. This is another reason to ask early–there are no guarantees that the first person you ask will be able to write you a letter.

If they say yes thank them and ask if there is any information regarding your grades, extracurricular activities, or past work experience that they would like. You should also bring along a copy of your resume or attach it to the email so that they have it and can use it to jog their memory when they write your letter.

Once you have gotten someone to write you a stellar letter of recommendation, the hard part is over, but your job is far from done. In addition to filling out your own portion of the application, you should stay in contact with your letter writer, especially as the deadline approaches. This could mean talking to them in person or periodically emailing them and asking if they need any more information from you.

As the deadline approaches you should contact your letter writer and let them know how the final letter should be submitted and if they are expected to do anything regarding submission. The worst thing would be completing your application on time but being disqualified because you never told your letter writer to email or submit their letter of recommendation.

Finally, once the application is completely sent in, don’t forget to thank your letter writer again! Ideally you should send a hand written thank you note to them for their time but an email works as well. By showing how appreciative you are, they will be more likely to help you out with letters of recommendation in the future. This is also a good time to let them know if you got what you were applying for if you want to.

Getting a letter of rec, while daunting, is often a vital step to completing your application. Remember to read over all the requirements and ask early to give yourself the best chance of receiving a spectacular letter of recommendation!

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