Most students need an academic reference sooner or later. Perhaps you are applying for a job or a scholarship – or maybe you are trying to get into a graduate program? Maybe you’re applying for professional certification or registration as a licensed professional; whatever the reason, getting an academic reference can be notoriously frustrating, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while. Most professors dislike doing them, primarily because they’re time consuming and it can be quite frustrating trying to come up with sufficient information to do them well. As a result, it’s not uncommon for professors to procrastinate on these, or to avoid them completely. If you’re a student seeking an academic reference, my advice is to make it as easy as possible for the professor to do it quickly and effectively. To help you do this, here below are some tips for getting a high quality academic reference. Many of these tips also apply when requesting other types of references.
1. Ask first!
The most important thing to be aware of is that you actually have to ‘request’ the academic reference. It’s completely inappropriate to simply list someone’s name on a form, assuming it’s their duty to provide you with an academic reference; professional etiquette dictates that you must first ask this person if they are willing to do it. If observing professional etiquette is not sufficient motivation for you, keep in mind that if someone is not expecting to give a reference (be it verbal or written), then they are not going to do it well and they may not do it at all. That just can’t be good for you. If you’re reading this now and find yourself in this situation, it’s time for damage control – contact the professor immediately, apologize for not realizing that you were supposed to ask in advance, and make your request.
2. Be memorable (for the right reasons)
Professors typically meet and teach hundreds of students each year and the truth is, once the new crop of students comes in, the old group is forgotten. It’s not because professors don’t care – it’s just that they have such huge quantities of information to keep track of, the non-critical stuff gets pushed to the back of their minds. (You’ll know exactly what I mean when you hit middle age yourself. 😉 ) So your preparation for the academic reference actually starts at least a year before you need it – when you are in the professor’s class, or when you’re working with them on a summer job or research project. You don’t have to be brilliant, though it never hurts, but you should strive to be mature and industrious. Make sure you submit all of your assignments, term papers, and lab reports on time and get the highest marks possible for these by doing them really well. If the professor asks a question of the class, try to be the one to speak up and answer it. (You don’t have to be right – you just need to try.) If the only thing a professor can remember about you is that you constantly distracted him/her during lectures by texting on your cell phone, giggling with the person beside you, reading a newspaper, or just sleeping – then this is bound be in the back of their mind as they give the reference, and that can’t possibly help you.
3. Make your request in person
If it’s at all possible for you to do so, make an appointment to go see the professor to make your request. Meeting face to face not only helps the professor to remember you, it also gives him/her a brief opportunity to get to know you a bit better. If their only experience of you is as one of a sea of faces in the lecture hall, then their reference letter, or phone conversation about you, is going to be pretty generic (and essentially useless).
It’s important to make an appointment for this meeting, that way you can be sure that the professor will have sufficient time to actually talk with you. It’s reasonable to request 20 to 30 minutes for this and most professors will be willing and able to accommodate this given sufficient advance warning. Just be sure to tell them the purpose of the meeting when you arrange the appointment. If you absolutely must make your request for an academic reference by email, consider including a photo of yourself to trigger the professor’s memory. Also, keep in mind that most professors get ~100 (or more) emails a day, so be sure to include a meaningful and informative subject line to catch their attention.
4. Provide all the required information
Whether you are meeting in person or requesting the reference by email – there are a few pieces of essential information that you should supply in order to make it as easy as possible for the professor to provide the academic reference. The more they know about you, and the less they have to look up for themselves, the better (and more prompt) your reference will be.
- Give them your full name and ID number.
- Remind them how they know you and tweak their memory about what makes you special (e.g. “I took your 3rd year physics course last winter and got an A+.” or, “I worked as a summer student in your lab five years ago and helped on the XXXX project.”)
- Bring along (or email) a copy of your transcripts and your current c.v. (or resume).
- Provide the professor with copies of any completed application forms and/or proposal you may be sending yourself, so they know what information you will have provided.
- Provide details of what the reference is for, including whether it will be delivered in written form or by phone. If there is a referee’s form, be sure to fill out your own information first (it’s usually at the top of the form). Also be sure to provide the professor with the referee’s instructions. Often the professor will request that you provide the form(s) and instructions in a follow up email. Don’t just refer them to a web site for this – download anything they will need and send it to them. (Note – in some cases – the agency or organization will contact the professor directly to provide the form and instructions; in that case you don’t need to do it as well.)
- Be sure to tell the professor the deadline and the (email or physical) address to which the reference must be sent. It’s especially important to let them know if the reference cannot be provided electronically, since time will be needed to get it there if a paper copy must be submitted. Note also – you don’t need to provide the professor with an addressed and stamped envelope – they will want to use envelopes from the university’s stationary and most universities pay the postage on regular mail like this.
If you are emailing your request, or following up a meeting with an email, put as much of this information as possible in the body of the email and limit your attachments to the transcripts, resume, forms, and referee instructions. If you just send an email saying, “please see the attached”, and put all of your explanations in a letter attachment, it quite likely won’t be read or acted upon – it’s a nuisance that the professor will put off and eventually forget. Also, always contact each professor individually. Emailing multiple professors to request an academic reference is just asking to be ignored; most professors skip any requests that are addressed to more than one person, assuming that the other recipient(s) will deal with it. Also, write individual emails to provide follow-up information; most professors find it rude and impersonal to be sent this sort of information in a broadcast format, even if you list all of their names in your opening. Keep in mind that they are doing you a favour; show your appreciation by taking the time to communicate with each of them as individuals.
5. Choose an appropriate person
If you are a graduate student applying for a scholarship, a job, or for admission to a higher level graduate program, then the most logical person to ask for an academic reference is your current supervisor. However, what if you’re an undergraduate and your only exposure to professors has been in a class of dozens or hundreds of other students? In this case, ask a professor that you got a great mark from – clearly you did well because you enjoyed the topic (and thus it’s likely related to the topic of your application) and it’s just easier for the professor to write a letter for you if you ‘aced’ their course.
If the professor you ask seems even a tiny bit reluctant to provide you with the reference, don’t pursue it – just go find someone else. Sadly, some are reluctant just because they’re busy and don’t care about you; others may be reluctant because they thought you were immature or lazy (see item 2 above for possible explanations of this). Some may not remember you well enough to feel they can do a good job on the reference. It’s also possible that they just don’t think you have high enough grades to get a particular scholarship or to be eligible for admission to a particular graduate program. Whether they are right or wrong about any of this is completely irrelevant, so there’s no point debating it with them. If you’re to get the best reference possible, the professor must agree with you that you deserve whatever it is that you are applying for and if they’re only lukewarm about it, they’re not going to give you the kind of reference you want and need.
Keep in mind that most professors are not going to want to come right out and tell you that they don’t think you warrant a good reference from them – no matter what their reasons might be. The universal clue is a comment something like, “I don’t really think I am the most suitable person to do this for you.” If you hear anything remotely like this – abandon this prospect immediately and look elsewhere for your reference. You are not going to get a winning reference from this person.
6. Send a friendly reminder
A couple of days before the professor has to submit (or mail out) your academic reference, send them a ‘friendly reminder’ that the deadline is approaching. Briefly remind them of who the reference is for, the specific date it’s due, and the required method of delivery (snail mail or electronic). You can also offer to resend them any of the background info or forms (from item 4 above). Close by politely asking them to send you a confirmation email once they have sent off the reference.
7. Follow-up with a thank-you
If a professor does agree to give you an academic reference, then they are interested enough in you to actually care how things turn out. Take the time to drop them a note to say whether or not you were admitted to the program, won the scholarship, or got the job. Also, take that opportunity to thank them sincerely for their time in providing the academic reference, whether or not you were successful. Thanking the professor is both essential and sufficient; it’s not expected, nor generally advisable, to send them a ‘thank-you gift’ – no matter how small. In fact, most professors consider it highly unethical to accept gifts for providing academic references, yet they don’t want to be rude and tell you that your behavior is inappropriate, so they invariably pass these gifts on to charity. However, all professors sincerely appreciate getting a thank-you note or card – it’s actually a pretty rare occurrence and thus a real thrill to be appreciated.
Wow! Perhaps there’s a lot more to this than you expected? If yes, I hope this info helps you to get some terrific academic references. If you have any feedback or additional suggestions to offer, please use the comment feature to share them. Thanks for reading and good luck with your application!