How to Ask for Reference Letters From Your Professors

This following article was published on the Career Services Informer (CSI), the official career blog of Simon Fraser University (SFU).  I have been fortunate to be a guest blogger for the CSI since I was an undergraduate student at SFU, and you can read all of my recent articles as an alumnus here.

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Image courtesy of Frank C. Müller on Wikimedia

I recently blogged about fast-approaching deadlines for professional programs and graduate studies. Applying to those programs and scholarships requires reference letters from professors, and – having done so as a student at SFU – I have learned that this task is far more intense than simply sending a quick email. Here are some tips for how to make it easier for your professors to write the best reference letters for you.

  1. Professors are very busy people with many demands on their time, so give plenty of advanced notice to them in your request for letters of recommendation. At the very minimum, they usually ask for two weeks to write such a letter, but they would definitely appreciate getting one month to do so.
  2. Choose your referees wisely. If you earned uncompetitive grades or had sub-optimal relationships with certain professors, do not ask them for reference letters. It will be a waste of their time, and they will not write good recommendations for you. Only approach those who can write glowing praise about your potential for your intended pursuit. George Agnes, the former Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and current Associate Dean of Science at SFU, once told me that my referees can’t just write good things about me – they need to write great things about me to distinguish myself from the many other applicants for the same graduate scholarship.
  3. Before you even approach them for a reference letter, prepare the following items for them to review in case they ask for them.
    1. Your most recent unofficial transcript.
    2. Your curriculum vitae (CV) about your professional and educational accomplishments – note that this is longer and more detailed than a résumé. Ask the Career Services Centre for help on drafting your CV if needed.
    3. A brief statement about how you will use this reference letter. What programs or scholarships are you applying to? What do you aim to accomplish by pursuing these endeavours? What are your long-term goals? How will these endeavours help you to achieve them? This statement does not need to be long – it just provides a useful framework for the professor to understand why he/she is writing this letter for you.
  4. Be prepared to remind your professor of what you accomplished under his/her teaching by assembling a package of your assignments, lab reports, papers or projects while under their instruction. If you received a high grade in the course but did not establish a very strong personal connection with the professor, then this package will be especially important.
  5. Prepare a list of the following information for all of the letters that you need in a spreadsheet:
    1. Program of study
    2. Institution of study
    3. Deadline of application
    4. Address of institution
    5. Recipient of the letter of recommendation
  6. Now that you are prepared, go ahead and write that email to your professor to ask for a reference letter. Include that brief statement in Step 3c) in your email. If a long time has elapsed since you last interacted with that professor, briefly remind them of how you met him/her. Conclude your email by telling them that your transcript, CV, package of relevant accomplishments, and spreadsheet of all the intended recipients are ready for them to view, and wait for them to ask for those items in the formats of their choice. In the body of your email, write the earliest deadline that you have to give them a sense of how urgent the letter needs to be.
  7. After you receive news about the outcomes of your applications, email your professors to update them about those outcomes and thank them – regardless of the result. Thank them for their time and support of your career – because they deserve it.

Jeff Rosenthal – a statistics professor from my other alma mater, the University of Toronto – has a very strict set of expectations for students who ask him for reference letters. Not all professors ask for the exact same things, but this is a very informative guide on how you can make the process easy for your professors and get the best reference letters possible.

Your thoughtful comments are much appreciated!

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