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Tips for seeking academic references

If you plan to apply to graduate school, you will need to ask a professor for a letter of reference. You shouldn’t be nervous to ask for a letter; writing references is something that professors expect to do, and most find it rewarding to support students with their applications to graduate or professional school, and applications for scholarships and other academic opportunities. These tips are designed to help you find people who can provide good, supportive references in support of your application(s), and help you navigate the process of requesting a letter of reference.

Figure Out Who to Ask

Deciding who to ask is the first step, and often more difficult than students think.

It’s very important to ask people that know you well enough that their letters carry some weight. For example: someone who you like, but only took one course from three years ago, isn’t a good choice. A professor you had for a course more recently (and ideally had for more than one course) in which you achieved a good grade is a much better option.

You should choose someone that knows you reasonably well and will be the most likely to provide you with a good letter of reference. A reference from someone who doesn’t know you very well will be very general, and probably lack specific details, which will render it neutral.

If at all possible, try to approach someone working in a field that is closely aligned with the field in which you wish to do your graduate work. When in doubt, approach someone who knows you relatively well through smaller classes or discussions.

Be Clear in Your Communications

It is appropriate to initially contact a professor to ask about their willingness to provide a reference for you via email. Try to refresh their memory about who you are and suggest a face-to-face meeting. This meeting will help you demonstrate your energy and enthusiasm for graduate school or an area of research.

If a professor agrees to write you a letter, be sure to provide them with clear instructions and all the information that they will require to write it. Offer to provide materials to assist them in writing the letter, and try to be as specific as possible. Providing a copy of your transcript (even just an unofficial copy) and a CV is a good idea. The more detail you can provide, the more likely the referee will be able to tailor the letter to the program or position to which you are applying.

Questions to make sure you address include the following:

  • What exactly are you applying for (name of the program or scholarship)?
  • Who should the letter be addressed to?
  • When is the reference due?
  • Are you picking up the letter in a sealed envelope, or does the professor need to send it by regular mail, email, or submitted through an online submission system?
  • Are there specific questions that need to be addressed in the letter?
  • Is it just a letter, or is there also a rating form that needs to be completed at the same time?
  • Will they receive an email formally inviting them to provide the reference?

Don’t Ask at the Last Minute

This should be common sense, but last-minute requests are a common complaint from professors who are asked to write many letters of reference. In some cases, you might ask relatively early, but fail to provide the necessary information to the professor in a timely fashion. Approach the professor to ask for a reference as far in advance of the due date as possible; several weeks in advance would be ideal.

If they agree, be prepared to provide them with a summary of program requirements, an updated CV, permission to look at your transcript and your statement of interest (final version ideally) as soon as possible. The more time and information you give them, the more specific the reference can be.

It’s a good idea to send a friendly reminder a few days before the letter is due, and to offer to provide additional information, if needed.

Read Between the Lines

Not all professors may be able to provide you with a strong letter of reference. During the conversation, you will have to use some judgment and pick up on their enthusiasm or hesitations about writing you a letter of reference. If someone expresses reluctance, it might be best to ask someone else.

Remember, it’s fair to ask your potential referee if their reference will be strong and positive or more neutral. In their letter, referees need to be honest about how well they know you and provide an honest assessment of your suitability to the program or scholarship to which you are applying. They will also be honest with you, so be sure to ask about how strongly they will be able to recommend you.

Don’t Forget to be Polite

This should also be common sense, but being polite goes a long way. Approach professors respectfully when asking for a reference.

After you submit your application, send a short note of thanks via email. If your application is successful, any referee will appreciate receiving a note to let them know. If everything goes well and you get into your desired program you should make the effort to let those who helped you get there that you appreciate their efforts.