How to Get a Great Reference Letter

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 10:15 AM EDT

If you're a young person with college success or a few great internships behind you, how can you convert that experience into an excellent entry-level gig? One key to making that transition is getting great reference letters from your professors, ex-supervisors or your internship coordinator. But beyond asking politely, is there any way you can influence what these people say about you?
Writing on HBR's The Conversation blog, author Jodi Glickman Brown offers three great tips that can transform any reference letter â€"- no matter your career stage -- from blah to brilliant:
  • Highlight their Qualifications -- When reaching out to ask for a letter of reference, explain up front and center why it is that you value that person's opinion and respect their professional expertise enough so that you chose them (of all people) to vouch for you in your next professional endeavor. Beyond mere flattery, show why you think that person is uniquely qualified to accurately assess and communicate your personal contribution to your future organization. Why did you enjoy working for them, and why do you value their opinion? How do the qualities match your own, or speak to the authority you want your recommendation to convey?
  • Provide a Template -- It's almost impossible to get a good reference letter from someone if you don't provide the tools necessary for them to actually write a good letter. It's also terribly inconsiderate not to give ample guidance. The last thing anyone wants to do is spend hours or days thinking about and drafting a letter which you yourself could have composed far better and more readily in about half the time. Providing a template, therefore -- an outline, bullet points, or even a fully-baked draft -- of what you'd like the reference letter to say is the most effective (not to mention generous and thoughtful) approach to asking for a letter of reference. The goal isn't to put words into your former colleague's mouth or to co-opt her into vouching for you in an untrue or disingenuous manner; it's simply to do some of the work for her and provide all of the pertinent data points that you'd like included in the letter.
  • "No Questions Asked" -- Once you provide your reviewer with a useful template and make it clear that your intention is to make this process as painless as possible for her, then it's time to hand over the reins and offer a "no questions asked" policy. First, give your colleague an easy "out" to decline your request for any or no reason. Then, assuming she agrees, give her ample leeway to change, modify or edit your letter as she sees fit. You want to convey a sense of trust in her and give her an opportunity to write a letter she is entirely comfortable with.
For those who are nervous about asking, Glickman Brown provides suggestions of exact language you can use to implement her suggestions in the post.

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.