This advice is pitched at the graduate student or senior undergraduate who needs letters of support for graduate school applications and scholarship/fellowship applications.
The academic economy is driven by reference letters, peer assessments, and reviews. Other people wrote letters that helped me get where I am now. You will write letters for your students and employees in the future. And someday, I may need you to write a letter for my promotion file. It’s also in my best interests (and those of my projects, department, and institution) to have my best students placed in good jobs and good degree programs. You have a right to ask for reference letters from your professors. And they have a right to say “no” if they cannot support your application.
Whom to ask?
The best academic reference letter comes from someone who has known you for at least two years, and/or has had you in a number of courses.
Professors who have taught you in courses in your proposed area of study can speak with particular authority to your domain expertise. Referees are often asked to comment on your “program of work” or “research proposal.” Professors in your proposed sub-discipline are well qualified to assess your proposal’s theoretical framework, the merits and shortcomings of your program of work, the venue in which you have published (if relevant), and the appropriateness of the institutional fit. A favourable assessment from them will mean more than a favourable assessment from someone who is not an expert in your proposed field.
Look at the categories on the reference forms. Referees are often asked to rank your background preparation, originality, present ability at research, research potential, industriousness, judgement, and oral/written skills. Are your skills comparable to those of the top 2%, 5%, 10%, or 25% of all the students the professor has taught? Choose people who have had an opportunity to observe these qualities in you.
However, if you have to choose between someone who knows YOU or someone who knows your FIELD, go for someone who knows you.
Likewise, if you have to choose between a junior scholar who knows you or a big-name scholar who doesn’t know you well, choose the person who knows you. The recognizability of the star’s name is no substitute for real knowledge of your work and potential.
How and when to ask?
- Ask for your letter as early as possible. Referees need time to compose a good letter
- Make an appointment to see the professor if you are on the same campus. If not, write a detailed email. Send your email from a professional-sounding email address.
- Present your case.
- Remind the professor of your connection to him or her. Your professor might not remember which courses you took.
- Tell your potential referee your plans for the future.
- Be clear about what you need. Ask explicitly for a strong letter: “Would you be able to write a strong and enthusiastic reference letter that speaks to my abilities in X, Y, and Z?”
- You might ask the potential referee where you rank in the class.
What to give your referee (i.e., me)?
Other professors may request different things. Here’s what I like to have:
- A memo/letter with the relevant information about the program, award, and/or institution. Give me a chart or table with clear instructions about the nature of the application, what I need to do, and when it must be done. If you want me to write letters to multiple places, please give me a TABLE with DEADLINES clearly indicated. Imperative verbs are just fine. Once I’ve agreed to write letters for you, we can dispense with the social niceties and just get on with direct instructions.
- If I have to fill out a printed form, ensure that YOUR PERSONAL DATA is already filled in. Do not expect me to look up your name, address, and contact information. If I have to insert this information into a web form or downloadable form, be sure to include it in your memo so that I can simply copy and paste.
- Instructions for what to do with the form. (Mail it directly to the institution? Send it by email attachment? To whom? Return to you in sealed envelope with signature across flap?)
- If the reference letter is to be submitted on line, give me the link and/or let me know when I can expect an invitation from the institution or granting agency.
- A copy of any essays you wrote for me with my comments. I may be able to quote from my own comments. I used to keep comments and grades indefinitely, but now I purge my records after a year in compliance with university privacy policies.
- A list of all the courses you have taken with me (with grades)
- A list of all other courses you have taken (with grades) and are taking now
- Any other information you want me to take into account, such as scholarships held in the past, university service, conference proposals submitted, publications, public service, relevant experience – anything that will help me write a specific, personalized letter
- YOUR PROPOSAL (Statement of Interest for OGS; Program of Work for SSHRC)
- A list of your Research Contributions (SSHRC) and/or publications (if any)
- A resume or CV (if you have one ready)
Asking for Additional Letters
Once I’ve drafted that initial letter for you, it’s easy for me to repurpose it for other applications. So DO ASK for additional letters any time up to two years after your initial request.