Imagine getting a call from an unknown number. You pick up, and the caller asks you to provide a reference for a camp counselor you supervised last summer (let’s call her Kim). The call is completely unexpected, and you can’t even remember the last time you talked to Kim. Kim was a great employee – very amicable and a hard worker. Your memory is fuzzy so you share a few disjointed comments and some generic compliments. You would love to give Kim a stellar reference but your mind is blank because you have no idea what she has been up to in the past year. Your testament to Kim’s hard work ends up being subpar because of the surprise of this call.

The point of this story is to never make the same mistake as Kim. Putting a previous employer in a situation like this is not only frustrating for them, but turns a potentially great reference into a lack-luster one.  Now let’s talk about two similar things that are actually very different: letters of recommendation and references.

Whether you have applied for a job, graduate school, or a scholarship, letters of recommendation and references are important steps in your career journey. Before I go any further, let me clarify the difference between a letter of recommendation and a reference.

Letter of Recommendations

  • Typically used for graduate schools, internships, scholarships, exclusive study abroad programs
  • Personal letter from someone who has seen your work ethic and abilities/skills
  • Written and addressed to a specific graduate program, internship, scholarship, or other targeted opportunity


  • Typically used for jobs
  • From someone you have worked for or with who can speak to your on-the-job abilities
  • Shared with others via a Reference List which is separate from your resume and lists 3-5 references

How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation

Asking for a letter of recommendation entails certain etiquette, especially since it is a courtesy and not an obligation. Typically, you would ask an employer, coworker, or professor. Never ask a family member.  To learn more about asking a professor or faculty member for a recommendation, check out the NAU English Graduate program’s website.

Whether you ask via a call, visit, or email, be sure to provide an “out” when asking for your recommendation. For example, you could start off by saying “Would you feel comfortable providing a strong letter of recommendation for me?” This will ensure that they won’t provide a weak recommendation because they’re unsure of your goals, efforts, or simply don’t feel confident recommending you but aren’t sure how to politely tell you no.  Also, ask early and be wary of deadlines so your reference doesn’t end up rushed. Be clear on how the letter of recommendation is to be sent, to whom, and by when. If you’re required to send it by mail, provide them with an envelope prepared with the address and proper postage.

Next, explain why you are applying for this specific job, internship, scholarship, or study abroad program, whatever it may be. If you wrote a personal statement, this would be a great place to attach it! If not, clarify how the skills or duties you had while working with this person applies to the job (etc.) you are applying for.

Finally, thank them! They took the time to help you so it’s important to show your appreciation. Follow up to make sure they don’t have any questions, and even consider getting them a small gift, especially if you might be asking them for more letters in the future.

How to Ask For a Reference

Like letters of recommendation, you must ask someone if they will be your reference and never assume they will give you a positive reference. Again, don’t use Mom as a reference. You want to ask someone who has worked closely with you and can attest to your skills and work ethic.

Call or email your former employer, coworker, or professor and ask them if they would be comfortable providing a strong reference.  Ideally you’ll have asked them if they’d be your reference prior to leaving, and will simply be double-checking to ensure they are still available and willing to be your reference.  Make sure you explain where you are in your career and why you are applying to certain jobs. It is important that they know, for example, that you are applying to accounting firms because you have just graduated with your Bachelor’s Degree in Accountancy.

If you’re unsure of whether or not it’s appropriate to ask someone for a reference, put yourself in your reference’s position and see if you can answer these questions about yourself:

1. What were the job responsibilities the candidate had while working at your company?

2. Do you think the candidate is qualified to assume similar responsibilities in the future? Why or why not?

3. How did the candidate perform with regard to________?

4. Is this person a team player or does he or she excel by working alone?

5. What was the candidate’s attendance record? Was the candidate on-time and dependable?

6. What areas of development were communicated to the candidate and how did he or she respond?

7. What are the candidate’s three strongest qualities?

8. What was the candidate’s reason for leaving the position?

9. Would you rehire this candidate?

Does LinkedIn relate to any of this? Yes, it does! LinkedIn allows others to write recommendations for you and endorse certain skills. Consider asking your coworkers and employer to write you a recommendation on your profile. This is a quick way for a potential employer to view a recommendation even if they did not require one (and how do they find your LinkedIn profile? From your resume header, of course). If you haven’t made an account yet – refer to my “How To” here.

References and letters of recommendation are a major part of the working world. While some may see them as cumbersome, view them as a tool to give you a step up in your application for some fabulous opportunity!

career louie


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