Asking for a Reference

For many people, asking for a letter of reference is nerve-wracking. Who do you ask? What should they say? Let’s cover some of these topics:

Who should write the letter?

The best letters are from people you know well and worked alongside – managers, colleagues, etc. Form letters and brief letters written by people who know you superficially don’t exactly inspire confidence in hiring managers. The writer should know you well enough to provide a solid and tailored evaluation.

How to obtain a strong letter

Ask your person beforehand if they feel comfortable writing the reference and find out if they have any concerns about your candidacy as it relates to the position you’re applying for.

Provide your reference letter writer with whatever materials they need to compose a strong evaluation, such as your resume, project descriptions and reviews. If there is something in particular you want highlighted in your letter, don’t be afraid to tell the writer. It is still the writer’s choice as to whether or not to include that information, but many letter writers appreciate such suggestions. This approach can prove particularly helpful if you are trying to create a composite picture of the skill set, personal traits, and characteristics you possess.


You should allow the letter writer at 2-4 weeks to write a letter of reference. People are busy and may be under tight time constraints. You will also want to be cognizant of the timing of your request since holidays and peak business seasons may cause delays in obtaining your letter.

Fact-check your letter

While mild spelling errors or grammar issues in your letter typically won’t be held against you, you do want to ensure that everything in the letter is true. If you notice a discrepancy, politely ask your reference person to make the correction. Send over a corrected copy if you feel it might be helpful. In any case, be specific about what you would like to be changed.

Follow up!

The authors of your reference letters spend quite a bit of time writing them. Be sure to thank them and keep them posted on the progress of your application and ultimate success.

Bonus tip!

Is your boss retiring or moving on to a new role? This is a great time to ask for a reference letter. Even when your boss is just moving departments, it’s easy to say, “We’ve had such a great working relationship, and I’ll miss working alongside you. Could you write a letter so that in five years when one of us leaves the company it will be easy to remember my accomplishments in this role?”

This way, when you eventually announce your own departure sometime later, ensure that your former manager is still willing to serve as a reference, remind them of the fabulous letter they wrote, and you’re all set with a great reference letter.

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