How to Get Good Recommendations (and Overcome Bad Ones)

Getting a good recommendation requires knowing who to ask and what to ask for. If you are applying for a job, what skills or successes do you want the recommender to discuss? If you are trying to generate business, what work have you done that will help you with your new customers? If the recommender cannot supply relevant and useful information, ask someone else.

Checklist for asking for recommendations:

  • How many do you need? What do they need to discuss? Do you need letters of recommendation? Will a phone call suffice?  What is the correct address for paper or electronic documents? When do you need the letter or phone call?
  • Provide a current resume and have a contemporaneous conversation with each of your recommenders. What looms large in your memory may not be front-and-center in your recommender’s mind.  Giving contemporaneous context to past experience is the essence of helping people who want to help you.
  • Are your references alive and available? An employer required 12 references and would take no action on an incomplete file.  An experienced lawyer submitted his list without contacting everyone, and never learned that one deceased-and-unavailable recommender ended his candidacy. If your recommender will be trekking in Tibet with no cell service, ask someone else.
  • When a potential recommender denies your request, “No” means “No.” When contacted for a reference, a professor said “I don’t know you very well, and can’t speak to your qualifications for the job.”  Disregarding that clear message caused the lawyer’s application to be DOA, because the lukewarm and non-committal reference was worse than no reference at all.
  • When you change your name, update your references. Forgetting to tell your references that you have changed your name will be embarrassing at best, and fatal to your candidacy at worst.
  • Write your own recommendation with enthusiasm. Don’t panic when a reference asks you to write your own letter. Being able to write about yourself in glowing terms may be a stretch, but the key to a good result is knowing what this recommender would be able to say about you as it relates to the job for which you are applying.

Overcoming a bad reference

Reference checkers expect stellar reports and they are sensitive to less-than-enthusiastic comments. You should have a stable of good recommendations, but you may not have left every job on the best of terms. If you prepare the interviewer for a very specific less than glowing reference, you can often take the sting out. For example:

  • No offer to anyone in a summer program. Telling your prospective employer that no one got an offer puts your job-related reference into context. Unless your former employer is prepared to admit that every hire was a bad one, your “no offer” is more likely to be chalked up to declining business or to a bad economy.
  • “I gave that person a ‘B’ as a clerk.” You can inoculate yourself against a weak performance rating by explaining (not whining) about the circumstance (and there should only be one) that caused it.  If you can explain that there was a terrible misunderstanding from which you have learned the importance of getting clear and explicit instructions, you may strike a chord with most lawyers who have been in similar circumstances.  Make clear that you understand your former employer’s frustration, and that you understand how that the single event could color his/her otherwise completely favorable evaluation.



  1. I’m actually applying to law school right now and have been asking for recommendations. Very timely post.

  2. Avatar Traveler says:

    Also, you should check your reference to see what they actually say when contacted, you can use a company like to do this…that way you can be sure they are positive, and take action to resolve any problems if they are not…

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