How to Ask for a Reference Letter

One of jobs of a faculty member is to write reference letters. But since this academic territory is often so unfamiliar to students I have put this document together to give you insight into the process thereby helping you understand a little about what you need to do to attain a good reference letter.  The most important thing to know about a reference letter is that faculty back their assessments with their reputation. This is because they are writing these letters to our colleagues in other departments, or at other institutions. What I am saying is that faculty take these letters seriously. It also means that the faulty cannot inflate their assessments of a student least they are thought of as being unable to arrive at fair judgments about a student’s abilities.  

Good letters also take time to write, especially those suitable for graduate school applications. I would council that you approach your lecturers and professors early, at least a month in advance, if not sooner even earlier. Remember the adage that ‘last minute requests get last-minute effort.’ Keeping all these points in mind, review the following advice drawn from my Guide to Potential Supervisees:  

These [letters] come from faculty who well know your coursework and research abilities. Their professional standing and experience provides a good vantage to gauge your ability relative to your peers or cohort. Attaining reference letters requires building relationships and making strong a connection with two or three faculty. You can do this by taking small classes, attending office hours, and then writing good memorable papers. Know that faculty typically specify in their letter how and how long we have known you and also provide a ranking relative to previous students they have taught. Also remember that it’s better to get a great letter from someone less known than a mediocre letter from a well-known scholar. If neither of these are options at the moment, I recommend going to your departmental seminar series and introducing yourself to the various attendees. Don’t be afraid, good scholars will make allowances for you. Irrespective of whether it is fair or not, part time staff do not have the professional standing, and so their letters are not viewed in the same light. Non-academic letters are immediately discounted, since they can seldom speak to your ability to do what a PhD expects of you: the potential to produce outstanding research. 

To recap, letters are explicit about how long faculty have known the persons, in what capacity, and how you are ranked relative to your peers and past students. 


For Whom I will Write Letters 

If you were in one of my big classes (~80 or more students), you cannot expect a very good (that is, detailed, personalized letter). The same applies if you did poorly in my class (that is a B- or worse). I would suggest that it is better to get a letter from someone else than a mediocre one from me. I also cannot write letters of recommendation unless I am given notice a full month in advance—I simply cannot drop everything else that I am doing to write a letter. Since most programs want the letters to evaluate the student’s maturity and organizational ability, asking or demanding an instant letter is counter-productive. I will generally write recommendation letters for students who: excelled in two of my courses (B+ or above); are supervised by me; or who were a Research Assistant for a Semester. Outside of these groups, it is difficult to write a group letter. 


What I need for a Reference Letter 

Having asked a month beforehand for a letter, and if I have agreed, then you will need to provide me with several things. These include your CV; your transcript and GPAs; full details of whom to address the letter (Name, Rank, Position, Institution.) Sending along other supplementary information like your cover letter, statement of purpose are a good idea as this means I can ‘fit for purpose.’ Ideally, you should be the polished versions of these items. I also want you to include a description of the job or fellowship, again this helps the ‘fit for purpose’ element of the letter. The less information you provide, the longer it will take me, meaning that this could result in a negative delay. It is helpful if you provide some anecdotes or publications that best illustrate your strengths and suitability for the job or fellowship. This might seem burdensome, but it is really about efficiency—less time spent tracking down administrative items means there is more time for composition. 


How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation 

In your first email message remind me who you are. For example, start with: 

“I am Scott Timcke, I took your Political Studies 101 class in Term I of 2002, and Political Studies 302 in Term II of 2004.” 

Update me on your recent activities: 

“Since graduating in 2005, I have been working as a Consultant for the Department of Labour. My main responsibility has been updating the Chemical Sector’s Sector Skills Plan.” 

State the purpose of the recommendation and the deadline.  

“I am applying to do a PhD at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication where I plan to study political economy of Facebook. Would you be willing to write a strong reference letter in support of this application? My A+ in your Political Economy of Southern Africa demonstrates that you have some insight into my performance with these kinds of methods of analysis.

To help you make this decision, I have taken the liberty of attaching my application materials, including a cover letter, transcripts, and sample of work. If you agree, the deadline is December 15th 2007. I will follow up in due course with a friendly reminder.”

One last thing, you can use this form to help me write you a good reference letter.

I hope this helps.