Letter of Recommendation / Reference

Discover how to better navigate the process of getting a professional letter of recommendation or reference

How to Get an Outstanding Letter of Recommendation

Getting a positive Letter of recommendation is a critical stage of your university application process, as almost all further education institutions request at least one from both domestic and international applicants in order to get an opinion about you from another perspective. Outstanding references accompanied by a well-structured academic CV will undoubtedly increase your chances of getting a place at the college or university of your choice.

Find below the tips, advice and template you need to come away with a better understanding of how to navigate the process of getting an academic or professional reference, and the best ways of making sure you get them before the deadline date.

Who Should I Ask to Write My University Reference?

The most appropriate person to approach for your letter of recommendation could be a professor, a sports coach, but in reality, it depends on whether you are applying for an undergraduate placement, or a position in a postgraduate programme.

Postgraduate programmes tend to request a letter of recommendation from a former employer, and particularly for placements in Masters of Business Administration, teacher positions and research roles.

A reference from your friends or family is not considered legitimate. This is due to the fact that universities are looking for impartial and balanced assessment of what kind of student you are, and your closest contacts are unlikely to provide this!

Hopefully you now have somebody in mind who you would be more than happy to ask for your letter of recommendation. You can also benefit from knowing some of the most popular recommendations about how to go about it, including the matter of etiquette. 

How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation For University or College

  • You have to start looking for your letters of recommendation ahead of time, preferably more than a month in advance. Leaving too little time for this task is not only stressful for you, but is also stressful for the teachers or employers who have to find the time to write you a well-done letter.
  • Ask double the number of professionals for a letter of recommendation than your university asks you for. There is always the possibility that the person you ask for a reference ends up not having the time to do it, or they simply forget. So, this could be a safeguarding measure against them not finishing your recommendation letters before the deadline. 
  • Prepare a draft or template of your recommendation letter that makes it easier for your referrer to edit with their own ideas. This has the advantage of allowing you some creative control over your reference, and also reducing their workload. This final point increases the likelihood that your recommendation letter will get finished within the timeframe you expect.
  • Try to prioritise the people with whom you have the best relationships. This is not always possible, but you should be conscious of selecting the referrers who have the best things to say about you.
  • Ask for your reference with a polite email that explains why you need a reference. 

Take the following template as inspiration if you need it:

Dear Mr./Ms./Prof. [referrer’s surname]

I’m writing to you because I am in the process of applying for [university/work opportunity], and I have been asked to provide a letter of reference as a part of my application. If you would be able to facilitate this on my behalf, I would be highly obliged.

I have fond memories of the projects that I carried out under your supervision, and I believe that you could be the most appropriate person to highlight some of my skills and characteristics. 

In this email I have attached a copy of my [personal statement/curriculum vitae] and a template that you can use if you so wish, as I appreciate that you already have a busy schedule. The due date for this letter of recommendation is [date]. I hope that this date gives you sufficient time to take on this task, however if this is not possible then I would understand.

Please let me know if you would be able to assist me in this.


[Your name]

For some people, the question of how to put together a recommendation letter comes naturally. Meanwhile, for others, they just need a little direction and inspiration to get their mind thinking with the kind of language that admissions officers like to see. 

How to Draft a Letter of Recommendation

Before you get started with your draft, you should be aware that the standard length of a reference or letter of recommendation is between 400-500 words.

International students who live in a country whose native language is not the same as that of your destination country should expect to submit a translated version of their letter of reference.

One way of handling this scenario is to find out whether your school has a translator as part of the team of staff, who can help you improve the presentation of your letter of recommendation.

As a way of helping your reference writer with the task of preparing your document, try to fill in the table below with the themes that you would like them to cover in each section.

Letter of Recommendation Draft Table

Self introduction and relationship to the applicant
A balanced summary of the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses
A personal story that highlights the applicant’s ability to handle challenges
A conclusion/summary

Create a draft using this table, and give it to your referral writer with a copy of your university personal statement. With these two resources, your referrer will be able to quickly and easily write a letter of recommendation for you, and it will build an image of you that you would like to transmit to your universities of choice.

Use the following list of skills and qualities for additional inspiration:

  • Commitment
  • Communication skills
  • Computer literacy
  • Confidence
  • Determination
  • Entrepreneurial skills
  • Flexibility
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Organisation skills
    • Problem solving
    • Responsibility
    • Team work
    • Time management
    • Using initiative
    • Working independently
    • Working to deadlines
    • Creativity
    • Reaction to setbacks and criticism

    With all of that brainstorming out of the way, you’re ready to take on the practical tasks of getting your letter of recommendation. There are more than a few simple mistakes that people make when trying to get their teacher or employer to produce a reference, and it helps to hear a little advice from others for making the entire process go as smoothly as possible.

    10 Tips For Getting The Best Letter of Recommendation Possible

    Your letters of recommendation should show your brilliance, and avoid generalities and platitudes that could be said about anyone. Take note of the following tips and ensure you get the best references.

    a happy student taking notes about top tips on how to get an outstanding letter of recommendation
    1. Make sure you choose someone you can trust to write a good reference. You won’t be able to see the letter before it’s sent, normally. This means you should only choose those with whom you have the best working relationships, if you have multiple options. Your selection should also ideally be a person who understands that the admissions tutors are looking for an authentic account of your strengths and weaknesses.
    1. Always ask for permission first! You have to make sure that the person you have in mind for your recommendation letter would be comfortable doing this for you. Receiving an email from a university asking you for a reference that you knew nothing about would be an unpleasant surprise.
    1. Make sure your recommender submits the reference from a corporate email address. Anybody can create a gmail or hotmail address and pretend to be someone else, so if you want to look as professional and reliable as possible then you should try to ensure that your reference is submitted from the organisation’s own email address.
    1. You should choose the teacher most associated with your selected subject. This may not always be possible depending on your circumstances, but your reference will be seen by admissions officers as significantly more informative if your recommender is familiar with your performance in your academic field.
    A calendar and a clock to organise the timely receipt of letters of recommendation.
    1. Give the authors of your letter of recommendation at least a month’s notice. Tutors and employers are usually the kinds of people who have a lot of responsibilities and work to get done, so give them enough notice to make space in their timetables for your request. Also let them know the deadlines for your application if you know what they are.
    1. Provide your reference authors with a copy of your personal statement to help them. This gives them some information about the way that you intend to present yourself to your chosen universities, which gives them the chance to complement that image of you. In practical terms, this source of inspiration always helps your recommender to complete the reference more quickly.
    1. Remind your teacher or former employer of examples of your best work. Even though you may have a positive relationship with your referrers, it’s entirely possible that they need to be reminded of the times you have produced exceptional results. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself!
    1. Keep everything specific and measurable. While you don’t have control over what is written about you, you can politely ask your tutor or employer to avoid any comments about you which might sound too general and vague, and instead choose to share information that can be measured.
    1. Be aware of how many letters of recommendation your university wants. Depending on how exclusive or prestigious your university of choice is, they can easily request multiple letters of recommendation. You have to inform yourself about what your university is looking for as much as possible.
    1. Everybody knows this is important for you, so try to relax! Teachers in particular have written plenty of letters of recommendations in the past, so they understand perfectly how much urgency is involved. Employers may be less used to a request of this kind, but the majority should be more than happy to help you. Try to be patient, and be aware that you’re giving the people around you more work to do than they already have.

    Now that you have some of our best tips for how to manage the situation of getting a great letter of recommendation that arrives well ahead of schedule, you can take the chance to familiarise yourself with what an academic letter of recommendation might look like.

    Sample of a University Recommendation Letter

    For those who are not sure what a letter of recommendation should look like, below you can find an example that will help you to get an idea of what elements and style should be used. 

    [University letterhead]

    [sender’s name]

    sample of a academic recommendation letter

    [sender’s departmental address—if not printed on letterhead] 

    [sender’s departmental phone number, if available]

    [sender’s departmental fax number—if not printed on letterhead]

    [sender’s institutional email address] 

    [today’s date]

    [recipient’s name]

    [recipient’s institutional address] 

    Dear [recipient’s name]: or To Whom it May Concern:

    It is my privilege to recommend Joe Boggs for admission to [name of program] at [name of university]. I am a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, England. I came to know Joe when I was his Instructor. The course consisted of [short description of course]. Joe distinguished himself by completing a remarkably well researched and compelling project on carbon reduction and sustainability. I would rank him among the most committed students that I have taught in the past four years due to his research ability and academic writing skills.

    Overall, Joe is academically capable and has exceptional skills when it comes to data analysis. His project on energy efficiency demonstrated his ability to come to a detailed understanding of the behavioural habits of building occupants, and to analyse the consequences of those practices in relation to the currently unfolding climate situation. He gave a particularly interesting discussion of alternative energy, and showed an awareness of the economic and political difficulties that are involved when discussing how society at large might implement these changes. His overall ability is also demonstrated by his grades for the course, which were consistently the highest in the class. 

    Joe has excellent communication skills. His written work is structured and clear, and always a pleasure to read. He showed his capacity for persuasive speech in the discussion sections that were a major focus of the programme. Each discussion section focused on diverse subjects. Students were asked to analyse the practical possibilities of implementing new energy forms, as well as their limitations. Joe was effective in applying the programme material in investigating real and complex situations. He always made the intellectual effort to explain his views clearly and gave supporting arguments that were both clear and persuasive. Joe also showed strong teamwork skills during group projects.

    As an individual, Joe is a hard-working, resourceful student with a personable personality. He always delivered more in the quantity and quality of his work than the course required, often dedicating extra time to research activity outside of class hours. During the programme, Joe demonstrated impressive willpower and an uncommon work ethic. Not only was he keen and enthusiastic about learning the content of the course, but he also took the initiative by connecting his academic learning to his own experiences in the subject field.

    Joe is without doubt a uniquely capable candidate for graduate study in the field of Environmental Sustainability. Joe’s work makes it clear to me that he would make the most of the opportunities that graduate study would provide him, and I would therefore highly recommend Joe Boggs. If his eager participation in my class is any indication of how he would contribute in a postgraduate context, Joe would enrich the academic experience of all those people around him.

    If I can be of any further assistance, or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Yours sincerely, 

    [sender’s signature]

    [sender’s name and title]

    We’ll leave you with this excellent video from King’s College London revealing what kinds of information universities are looking for in academic reference letters – and although this is particularly helpful for those applying through the British UCAS system, the principles expressed here can be applied by students all around the world.

    You now have all the information and resources necessary for getting started with your recommendation letter. Good Luck!

    Frequently Asked Questions About Letters of Recommendation

    FAQS about recommendation letter

    What should you avoid in a letter of recommendation?

    The most typical themes that admissions staff dislike include information that is too vague and general. Your referrer should be conscious of avoiding hyperbolic language, as well as going into too much detail about the relationship between both of you.

    The admissions committee wants to learn about the candidate specifically, and every affirmation should be backed up with an example of something you have done or achieved.

    Should I send a reminder to a recommender?

    One of the best ways to avoid feeling unsure when it seems like your referrer may have forgotten your request, is for you to politely ask for an approximate estimation of completion in your initial email in which you ask for the letter of recommendation.

    Can I use the same letter of recommendation for different universities and colleges?

    It is preferable to have letters of recommendation that make it clear that the prospective student is specifically interested in becoming a part of that particular university or college. If you can achieve this, using the same letter of recommendation can be a realistic option.

    How many letters of recommendation do you need to ask for?

    This depends on the country and the institution in question. For example in the UK, UCAS only requires candidates to obtain one letter of recommendation. Meanwhile, in the United States, it’s common for colleges to request between two and three reference letters.

    When it comes to employers, you can be asked to provide either none at all or even more than three. You should consult the organisation you are applying to.

    Craig Plunkett

    Content Creator. Lived in: Spain, Republic of Ireland, England, and Scotland. Studied at: York College in North Yorkshire (Extended Business Studies - Diploma)

    Fabiola López Marín

    Content Creator and Editor. Lived in: Spain, the USA, Sweden, and Venezuela. Studied at: University Autónoma of Barcelona (Dr.oec.), University of Barcelona (Master in Digital Journalism). University of the Andes (Bachelor in Public Accounting)

    Related Articles

    Back to top button