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How to Ask for a Recommendation: A Month-by-Month Guide

In the world of internships, open season has officially begun. As the summer draws closer, hopefuls scramble to score their dream positions. But when fighting for an internship is reminiscent of The Hunger Games, a collegiette needs her best ammunition by her side. Well-written cover letters and impressive resumes will help you snag a coveted interview, but an outstanding letter of recommendation is any hopeful’s secret weapon. “They prove that you’re real, talented and give you instant credibility in the eyes of those who don’t know you,” says Neal Schaffer, President of Windmills Marketing and networking guru. But how do you ask someone for a recommendation? More importantly, how do you ask them without sounding like a mooch? Allow us to help you.

January: Start planning who to ask

While many collegiettes resolve to find true love or shed a few pounds after the ball drops, you’re focused on landing that perfect internship. Start the search off by figuring out deadlines and which applications require a formal recommendation letter.  As you begin to make a list of places you’d love to work this summer, start making a list of whom you’d like to ask for a recommendation. But which ones are viable candidates?

It’s okay if you haven’t had an internship before

Some collegiettes have lengthy resumes; however, other hopefuls never had an internship. What’s a girl to do? “The applicant can also have a faculty member on their list if needed,” says Carol Spector, Director of Career Services at Emerson College. If you haven’t had any work experience, feel free to reach out to a professor or a faculty advisor of an extracurricular who you have a good relationship with.  Don’t worry, collegiettes; this month-by-month guide also works for this scenario.

The higher, the better

 You may have had your fair share of internships, but you’re clueless when it comes to figuring out which supervisor you should ask for a recommendation. When in doubt, take a walk down memory lane and think about who you worked with the most. “Generally speaking, the person you reported to at work would be the best person as they would be able to give the most details about your work,” says Schaffer. “However, the higher up in the organization that you can get a recommendation from, the more perceived value it might have – so aim high!” That being said, don’t ask someone you barely know – and who barely knows you – for a recommendation. Chances are that they won’t be able to give you a rave review.

Quality is key

Though you may be tempted to ask everyone you know for a recommendation, don’t. Instead, zero in on those who will really sing your praises. “You should have two or three names of people to provide for the new employer,” notes Spector. “You should choose people who can best speak to your talents and experiences that may be related to what you’re currently seeking.” Many times, your potential employer will specifically ask for some of your most recent bosses.  If someone you just interned for can give you a stellar recommendation, all the better.

Focus on the skills

While many people reach out to old bosses who can give a general, positive review, make sure to take the skills that this new internship requires into consideration. For example, maybe your computer science professor would make a great recommendation if you’re applying to programming internship. Not only will it show your potential employer that you’re a strong candidate, it also proves that you’ve done your research.

Keep tabs with social media

If you haven’t connected with your old employers online, now is a better time than any. “Social media gives us the ability to help stay in touch, so I say that you should friend or follow them on whatever social media platforms,” suggests Schaffer. Just make sure you know where to draw the virtual line. While following your old supervisor on Twitter or connecting with them on LinkedIn is one thing, friending them on Facebook is too invasive in most scenarios. Also, make sure that all your social platforms are intern-appropriate before you invite your old boss into your digital world. You may think your raunchy tweets are hysterical, but revealing your unprofessional side to your former employers will only hurt your chances of snagging that magnificent recommendation.  Stay on your old employer’s radar by retweeting some tweets or commenting on their latest LinkedIn updates (in a professional way).

February: Rekindle your professional relationship

Cover letter? Check. Resume? Check. Reference letters? Almost. Now that you’ve narrowed down your list of potential contacts, it’s time to bring up the internship search. “The longer you wait, the less that they will remember about you,” says Schaffer. “It really is a case of the sooner you do it, the better it will be for you.” Since you’ve been staying in contact with your old boss, reconnecting will be a breeze.  Wait, you haven’t stayed in touch this whole time? Don’t panic just yet—you may be able to salvage the relationship. Even if you’re a networking guru, you must check out the best ways to bring up the subject.

Visit your boss at work

Face-to-face time not only gives you the opportunity to really catch up, but it also shows your former employer that you genuinely care about your old internship. If you can visit your old boss, shoot him or her an email and ask if you bring them some coffee or just say a quick hello. Most likely, they won’t turn down a chance to catch up (or a steaming cup of their favorite brew).  Once you’re reconnecting, casually slip the intern search into the conversation. “I can’t believe it’s almost been a year since I’ve interned here,” you can say. “Now I have to start the search process all over again.” Though you’re not blatantly asking for a recommendation, this comment may lead to more conversation about your internship search. You never know—maybe your old boss will offer to give you a recommendation right then and there.

Catch up over email

Don’t let distance hurt your chances of scoring a stellar recommendation. If visiting your old intern stomping ground is impossible, reconnect over email instead.  A perfect way to initiate conversation is by showing your old boss that you’re still keeping tabs on the company. If you interned at a magazine, compliment the latest issue. Or, if you worked in a more corporate environment, congratulate your old supervisor on that new partnership. “By ‘always being on the lookout for them,’ you will win a permanent place in their heart—and reap the dividends down the road,” says Schaffer. Just remember to ask your old boss how they’re doing. Unless your former employer is in a rush, he or she will most likely ask how you’re doing. Don’t ask for the recommendation just yet—that’s a major mooch move. Instead, take this opportunity to plant the seed. “I’m good!” you reply. “I’m in currently in the process of applying for summer internships. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I applied to work at [insert company’s name here].” Not only are you laying down the groundwork for the big question, you’re also bringing the conversation back to your old internship.


March: Pop the question

Email away

When it comes to actually asking for the letter of recommendation, you can send an email. “Just make sure you personalize the request so it doesn’t look like you sent the same one to dozens of people,” warns Schaffer. Email your old employer to ask, “Would you feel comfortable with writing me a letter of recommendation?” This way, you’re giving your potential recommender the option to say no. But since you were such a fabulous intern, they’ll probably be thrilled you thought of him or her.

Don’t be afraid to follow up

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself refreshing your email every five minutes—it happens to the best of us. If you don’t hear back from your potential recommender soon, follow up with a friendly email.  In the event you still haven’t heard back from them, you might want to explore your other options—that’s why you created a list of potentials.

Give your recommender additional information

Congratulations! Your old boss said that he or she would love to write you a letter of recommendation. Let that sigh of relief out, collegiettes, because the worst is over. But you’re not home free just yet. To make sure that you get the best letter of recommendation you can, provide your former employer with some additional information. “Basically, whatever information that you think they should know to increase the chances that your recommendation will help you get hired, tell them that!” says Schaffer. So what exactly does that mean? We would never leave you hanging at a time like this:

  • Deadline: Just like everyone else, your recommenders can forget things or become a little sidetracked. “You may want to give the person a week,” suggests Spector. “Build in some time for that if you have a deadline or know the timeframe for the letter.”  By giving your recommender an earlier deadline, you’ll definitely be able to submit your application in a timely manner.
  • Where you’re applying: If your recommender has enough time, you should ask him or her to customize each letter to each company. A dash of personalization will show your potential employer that you care enough about this internship to tell your recommender about it. But don’t be a nag if your recommender is swamped with their own work—he or she is doing you a favor.
  • Who they should address the letter to: Even if you recommender doesn’t personalize each letter, “To Whom It May Concern” is a little too impersonal for our liking.  Ask your recommender if he or she would mind addressing the letters to different people—it usually won’t be an issue.
  • Your previous experiences: Just because you’ve worked with your recommender doesn’t mean that he or she has memorized your whole resume. Chances are, he or she hasn’t. In order for your recommender to write a comprehensive letter of recommendation, send him or her your resume. If you want them to talk about a certain experience, provide a brief description of that incredible internship or extracurricular. Better safe than sorry, right?  

April: Follow up, follow up, follow up

The clock is ticking and you still haven’t received your recommendation letter. If you already have the okay, our expert says it’s okay to follow up on the regular. “Sometimes you have to remind the writer about the tasks,” says Spector. “Follow up and remind them of your status in the search as often as you like, maybe weekly.” However, constantly asking if your recommender is done with the letter can get a little, well, annoying. Instead, you can remind your recommender by asking him or her some logistical questions about the letter.

  • Who they feel comfortable sending the letter to: Some recommenders don’t mind if you take a peak at your glowing review while others are a little more private. Since everyone’s different, shoot your recommender an email to find out.
  • How they should send the letter: A letter of recommendation is a letter of recommendation, right? Not necessarily. Some companies require the letter signed, sealed and delivered. Whether that’s the case or not, let your recommender know the best way to send it. If you’re not so sure, send an email to whoever is in charge of the company’s internship program.
  • If you’re allowed to send the letter over and over again: So maybe you couldn’t score a personalized letter of recommendation for every place you want to apply to. Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.  With your recommender’s okay, you can send that letter to a spur-of-the-moment internship opportunity.

Every time you follow up, make sure you let them know how much you appreciate this letter of recommendation. After all, a little thank you goes a long way.


May: Don’t forget to say thank you!

Your old bosses must’ve given you a glowing review because you got the internship! Before you update your LinkedIn profile and plan your internship ensembles, don’t forget to thank your recommender. When Virginia Ashe, a collegiette from Boston University, was accepted into a publicity program for Cannes Film Festival, she made sure to thank her old boss from her internship at Diane von Furstenberg. “I sent a heartfelt email,” says Virginia. “I politely thanked her for the recommendation and let her know I would keep her in the loop.” Or send your recommender a thank you card— taking the time to write and mail a letter shows your sincere gratitude. Plus, everyone (not-so) secretly loves receiving snail mail!

June: Keep in touch

Coffee runs, long hours and invaluable experiences—welcome to the wonderful world of interning! You’ll definitely be busy this summer, but don’t forget to stay in touch with your recommenders. They didn’t land the internship for you, but it’s safe to think that they were singing your praises. “I think the most important thing about asking for a recommendation is to keep in contact with your boss before and after asking for it,” concludes Virginia. Instead of trading office gossip or walking your old boss through your day-to-day intern rituals, let him or her know that what you learned at your former internship is helping you at your new one. Remember to continue keeping tabs on your old company—your former boss will love to know that you still are genuinely interested.

As you wrap up your glorious summer internship, don’t forget to stay in touch with your current employers — they may give you incredible recommendations in the future!

Kelsey is a senior at Boston University, studying Magazine Journalism  in the College of Communication. As a magazine junkie and fashion fanatic, she loves being a part of the Her Campus team! At BU, Kelsey is president of Ed2010 at Boston University.  She has interned for Time Out New York, Lucky, Anthropologie, and Marie Claire. Kelsey also has a fashion blog, The Trendologist, where she covers the latest trends, fashion shows, and red carpet reports. When she isn't busy, Kelsey loves hanging out with her friends and family, shopping, reading style blogs, going for a nice jog, listening to music, creating baked goods in the kitchen, watching movies, and eating tons of frozen yogurt and sushi! After graduation, Kelsey hopes to work as an editor for a fashion magazine. Follow Kelsey on Twitter and Instagram at @kmulvs and don't  forget to check out her "Catwalk to Campus" blog posts!
As the Senior Designer, Kelsey is responsible for the conceptualization and design of solutions that support and strengthen Her Campus on all levels. While managing junior designers, Kelsey manages and oversees the creative needs of Her Campus’s 260+ chapters nationwide and abroad. Passionate about campaign ideation and finding innovative design solutions for brands, Kelsey works closely with the client services team to develop integrated marketing and native advertising campaigns for Her Campus clients such as Macy’s, UGG, Merck, Amtrak, Intel, TRESemmé and more. A 2012 college graduate, Kelsey passionately pursued English Literature, Creative Writing and Studio Art at Skidmore College. Born in and native to Massachusetts, Kelsey supplements creative jewelry design and metal smithing with a passion for fitness and Boston Bruins hockey. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_thornFollow her on Instagram: @kelsey_thorn