How to Ask for a Great Reference Letter

Despite often being neglected until the application deadline, reference letters are crucial for the selection committee to gain a better sense of who you are. They provide additional information regarding your suitability for the award / position that cannot be conveyed solely in your resume, grades, or application statement. While your personal statement provides insight about yourself, reference letters provide a second viewpoint that can support your application. For instance, they can explain any unusual circumstances you may have such as lack of publication due to lab patent filing process or an uncharacteristic low grade on your transcript. Typically, a reference letter simply reinforces what you wrote in your application.

This article will focus on reference letter tips when applying to research positions & awards/ graduate school; however, some of these tips can also be applied to other scenarios. Typically you will need 1-3 references per application, but some awards even ask for 6.

Who should be your referee?

Who you should ask to be your referee depends on what you are applying for, but most awards require 1 personal and 2 academic references. It is important to ask someone (not a family member or friend) who knows you well enough to talk about how you are a good candidate for the position/ award and can give specific anecdotes about you. If the referee seems reluctant, consider asking someone else. When possible, consider having a variety of references to showcase the range of your abilities and character. For academic references, consider a professor from a lecture course, from a seminar/lab course, and if possible a professor you have worked with closely for a project. For non-academic references, ask your direct supervisor for a volunteer organization or a job.

It is crucial to remember to keep your referees’ contact information because you will need reference letters throughout your career for scholarships, jobs, and post-graduate/ professional education applications.

How should you ask for a reference letter?

It is best to ask your referee in person and then follow up with an email. If you feel like the professor will be a good referee, ask them if you could use them as a reference in the future at the end of the course.

When should you ask a referee for a letter?

To ensure your referees have enough time to write a reference letter, it is crucial you ask your referee at least 3 weeks in advance and remind them about a week before the deadline.

What should you tell your referee?

It is also helpful to let them know what your application is for, who they should address the reference letter to, and how they should send their reference to the selection committee (physical copy, upload online etc). In addition, provide your latest resume, transcript, and specifics of what you did in their course, lab, job etc. to help them remember specific anecdotes about you. After the referee has submitted their letter, remember to thank them.

Most professors realize that writing reference letters is part of their job, and are happy to help their students; however, many students will ask professors for reference letters.  In particular, for professors who lecture large classes, do not be discouraged if they decline. In general, it is a good idea to have a couple of “go-to” references and a couple of backup references as you apply to awards and other applications because this saves you the trouble of asking the same referee to write a letter 5 times a year. Finally, keep your referee posted on the result of your application and thank them again for their support.



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