Letters of recommendation should always be written by a person who is familiar with your skills and abilities, so develop this relationship well in advance of asking for the letter. Letters containing specific details are always more convincing than a generic letter. The real value of the letter is in the relationship you have with the person who is writing it, so create the relationship that will naturally lead to a strong letter of recommendation.
Researching Letters of Recommendation
Find some examples of good letters, so you will understand the format and style. When you are ready to make a request for the letter, you will have some background knowledge about the specific type of letter you need. You can make a positive impression by doing this research in advance of making the request. For example, every good letter will be professionally typed, and it will have a standard appearance on the page.
The Written Request
Writing your request for a letter of recommendation is a good way to make a positive impact if you are requesting it from a teacher. Apply your knowledge of the form letter, so any professional could instantly recognize it. If your request appears similar to the form used in professional correspondences, you will increase your chances of receiving a positive response.
Break up the written request into three or four paragraphs. The first paragraph should remind the teacher of who you are, and you can lightly mention any event that occurred during your studies that might trigger a positive memory. The second paragraph should state the reason for your request, and explain how the letter of recommendation will facilitate this goal. The goal should be specific. For example, if you are applying to a college or a graduate program, mention that fact in this section.
The last paragraph or two should encourage them to contact you for any additional information needed to complete the request, and it is important to have a CV or resume ready in case this information is requested. The final paragraph should respectfully acknowledge that you might not receive the answer you want, but always thank the professor for taking valuable time out of a busy schedule to consider your request.
The Verbal Request
Although a verbal request can be accomplished without a written request for a letter of recommendation, it will always be stronger when used in combination with the written letter. Writing the letter in advance provides several benefits. You will have a clear mental image of what it is that you want, and you get some practice organizing your thoughts on paper before verbalizing the request. After you finish writing your formal request, you will need to find a time and a place that is appropriate and conductive to this activity.
Do not make the request when the professor is in a distracted or rushed state of mind. You can start by asking the person if she or he knows you well enough to be able to write a strong letter of recommendation. This can be done casually in the middle of an ongoing conversation, or you can make an appointment. Try to provide opportunities for the professor to give feedback.
Carefully listen to every detail during the verbal conversation to decide if providing the written request is appropriate at this time. If so, you will appear prepared and professional, and this will create the exact impression that you want them to write about. Be prepared to answer any questions about your future plans, and take mental notes that will help you write a customized thank-you note later.