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How to request and receive stellar reference letters

Contributor: Simi Juriasingani


Courtesy of shutterstock.com

“Dear Professor, I am sending this email to ask if you would be willing to write me a reference letter for…”


Sound familiar?


At one point or another, almost every university student has typed an email that begins with a  phrase like the one above. Whether you’re applying for a research position, a scholarship, a professional program or graduate school, you will need strong reference letters if you want to receive acceptances to your top choices.


But what if your attitude while requesting a reference letter leads to a negative or sub-par recommendation? You may not have thought about this before, but not every “yes” from a referee translates to a stellar reference letter.


This blog post is inspired by an incident I heard about recently. One of the professors instructing the course that I am a TA for received a rude reminder email from an undergraduate student after agreeing to a last-minute request for a reference letter. The email included a bolded sentence with a reminder of when the reference was due and it was phrased as if the student was reminding professor to meet an academic deadline! It was abundantly clear that the student’s attitude and etiquette had negatively impacted the reference letter they received.


This anecdote made me reflect on my own experience with requesting reference letters. Having successfully applied to graduate programs twice, I’ve decided to share some of my tips on how go about getting great reference letters.


Tip 1: Pick your referees carefully.


When choosing who to contact for reference letters, it’s important to consider the specific requirements and skills required for the position or program you’re applying to. The people you choose should be able to comment on specific sets of skills you have based on their interactions  with you. Also, they should hold you and your achievements in high regard.

Graduate school applications focus on academic performance and research experience, so I chose two professors in my department as my referees because they had supervised me during research positions and were aware of my grades and scholarships.


However, medical schools consider a lot more than just academic performance, so I chose a professor, an employer and a volunteering supervisor as my referees in order to gain  multifaceted letters about my academic achievements, work ethic and community involvement.


Tip 2: Contact your referees in a manner that reflects your relationship with them

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Once you’ve picked your referees, you need to decide how to contact them. Think about your relationship and what you need from them.


If you have doubts about their answer, think about additional information you could provide to persuade them. For instance, in my second year of undergrad, I requested an academic reference from the professor who taught me in a large class. I took the initiative to introduce myself to them during office hours before requesting the reference letter and provided my transcript, since the professor only knew about my performance in his course.


He was appreciative of my approach and agreed to write me a letter.


If someone has written you a reference letter before, you could probably email them for another one. However, if you’re going to need a series of important reference letters with different deadlines (i.e. for medical school), it’s probably best to meet with the referee or speak to them on the phone to explain the importance of the situation and why you chose them — before you crowd their inbox with details!    


Tip 3: Give your referees all the time and information they need to give you a strong reference letter.


The people you contact for reference letters are likely busy, so make it as easy as possible for them to write a strong reference letter. For example, contact them as early as possible, ask them what they need from you and send them the requested materials as soon as you can.

If you can anticipate the information they’ll need (transcripts, resume, writing sample and etc.), you could take the initiative to send it to them. But don’t send them unnecessary information in order to impress them, because you may end up revealing your weaknesses or diverting their attention towards facets you don’t want them to highlight in their letter.


Tip 4:  Be polite, respectful and grateful.


It’s important to recognize that anyone who writes you a reference letter is doing you a favour. So saying “please” and “thank you” is never redundant. Under no circumstances should you feel entitled to a good reference from anyone.


However, projecting the right tone in emails can be challenging, especially when urgency and gratitude need to be present in equal measures. For example, if you need to remind a referee about a deadline via email, choose your words carefully. Instead of saying “I’m sending this email to remind you that the reference letter is due at 4 p.m.”, try saying “I was hoping to get an update about the reference letter, which is due at 4 p.m.” The latter statement implicitly shows that you realize they are doing you a favour and doesn’t reflect a sense of entitlement.


When someone writes multiple important reference letters for you, consider thanking them with more than an email. A personal handwritten thank you note or a gift that suits their preferences, such as a gift card to a local coffee shop or a box of premium chocolates, is a memorable token of gratitude.


Being polite, respectful and grateful will ensure you don’t end up sabotaging your own reference letter and will also increase the likelihood of getting multiple reference letters from the same referee.


In addition to the points mentioned above, it’s important to be prepared for some special situations that may arise when you request a reference letter.


Special situation #1: Writing a draft of a reference letter for yourself to save your referee some time


If a professor asks you to write a draft of a reference letter, see it as a blessing rather than a burden. Not only does this allow you to show them what you want them to say, but it also allows you to impress them with your self-awareness and self-reflection.


Think about it from their point of view and represent their knowledge about you and your achievements truthfully. When a professor asked me to write a draft of a reference letter for my research scholarship application, I focused on relevant research and academic achievements he was aware of (i.e. publications, conferences and etc.) and mentioned the duration and capacity in which he knew me.


To make the letter more authentic, I incorporated words he had used in the past to praise my progress and work ethic. He found the draft helpful and said he would be happy to provide reference letters in the future.


Special situation #2: Fulfilling a specific request from your referee


Occasionally, a referee may request you to do something for them. Several professors who have written reference letters for me have asked me to write letters in support of their teaching award applications. I always agree to their requests and try my best to write strong letters for them by searching up the specific award requirements and including specific anecdotes from the courses they have instructed to highlight the attributes emphasized by the requirements.


When you find yourself in these situations, treat requests from your referees as opportunities to express your gratitude. Say “yes” whenever possible and fulfill their requests in a thorough, timely and generous manner.


For the most part, professors are willing to write reference letters for their students. However, your approach can improve or impair the quality of the reference letters you receive. Communicating with referees can be challenging, so hopefully this will help you out!

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