How to request an academic reference

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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!


18 thoughts on “How to request an academic reference

    […] are just graduating and looking for a professor to give you a reference – check out my post on “How to request an academic reference.”  The procedure is essentially the same for a job […]

    Anne said:
    January 1, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Hi, is it fine to get a retired professor who is currently not affiliated with any organization/university to be my referee? I’m asking because the universities are expecting to receive reference letters with the university/organization letterhead, referee’s contact details/position in the university and etc.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      January 2, 2014 at 10:51 pm

      Hi there – many retired professors still have emeritus status, so they would still be entitled to use the letterhead. If you have a specific person in mind I suggest you ask them and explain the requirements – they should be able to tell you if they can manage it.
      Good luck!

        Sarah said:
        September 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm

        Hi, I asked two of my professors to be my referees. They are agreed to do so but the problem is they both left my current uni and are teaching in other universities now. Is it fine to get a professor who is currently not teaching in my school(but have taught me before)?

        Faye Hicks responded:
        September 15, 2014 at 5:48 am

        Hi Sarah – yes, that should be just fine. The important thing is that they know you and can attest to your academic skills – it doesn’t matter if they have moved to another university.
        Good luck!

    Robert Harvey said:
    January 13, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Faye,
    I am currently in another country working, but I wish to ask 2 of my previous professors for academic references. I graduated over 12 years ago so I am wondering the best way to go about this. I have a resume which contains a picture of myself as is, or at least has been the style in the country I am in now so hopefully that will help them to remember me. In you have any suggestions for my situation I would greatly appreciate any feed back.
    Thank for any help you can give me.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      January 15, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      Hi there – you could give it a try but don’t be surprised if they cannot remember you. (I don’t think a photo would help me to remember a student from 12 years ago.) Also, they will likely not have any records of your grades in their courses after all of this time – so it will be a challenge. They will likely have to go on info in the transcripts alone. Any info you can offer to help tweak their memory will be helpful. Good luck!

    Luci said:
    April 28, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I Just asked my professor to write me a reference and he told me to send him an email including entities, my name position and all? How do I write him an email?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      April 28, 2014 at 8:14 pm

      Hi Luci – I would start by providing the info I suggest above and the info he is requesting. You could close by asking him if he needs any other information. Good luck!

    Niall Curran said:
    December 15, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Hi Faye, your post was very informative thank you. Percuring an academic reference is iminant for me. I’m wondering in a hypothetical situation where a person is unsuccessful in attaining a graduate programme, for any subsequent applications, would it be bad practice to ask ones professor multiple times for a reference? Surely professors would try to avoid this type of situation. Do you think there is a correct process in this event?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      December 15, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      Hi Niall – it isn’t really too much bother to ask a professor to do multiple references since all universities pretty much ask for the same info. Consequently s/he can reuse the same one. It does help to let the professor know that you’ll be applying at several places when you first ask though, since they’ll know to hang onto it for reuse.
      Good luck!

    samson said:
    October 26, 2016 at 8:19 am

    i am planning to apply for the position of an assistant lecturer in about 6 schools and all of these schools included in the adverts that referees should forward their references. i dont want to stress my referees. so i’m thinking of just submitting the application without asking for reference until after the interview. will that be appropriate and is there a chance of even making it to the interview stage with good application.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      November 11, 2016 at 8:15 pm

      Sorry for the delay responding. It is critically important to ask for permission to name someone before you give their name as a reference. Some rules of this type may be flexible, but not this one. It is equally important to provide references with the application if instructed to do so. Not doing something specifically instructed/requested in your application is just about the most efficient way there is to get your application set aside in the discard pile. Therefore, I don’t see that you have any other choice than to ask for permission from your referees, and to provide them on your application.

    Juvénal said:
    March 30, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Faye! Thank you very much for the post. It is very helpful. I’m applying for a posdoctoral fellowship and academic position, depending on opportunity. Many universities ask to provide at least two references. What is the ideal number of references in this case? 4, 5, 7? Second question: does the referee have to know the applicant personally? Can’t he or she write a reference basing on my CV and research project and any other information I give them, such as my dissertation, published article…?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      March 31, 2017 at 6:34 am

      Thanks Juvénal – I’m really glad you found it useful.

      In answer to your first question, I’m not sure if everyone would have the same idea as to what might be an ideal number of references but my own opinion is that 5 is a reasonable upper limit for post-doctoral and academic positions. I would further suggest that you should aim to have no fewer than 3. However, I would add the caveat that having 5 is not better than having 3, if you cannot be sure they will all be 100% positive and very enthusiastic reviews. (And, of course, if the application information calls for a specific number of references, it is important to provide exactly the number prescribed.)

      This leads into your second question… whether to solicit reference letters from people you do not know personally. This may depend on regional and disciplinary conventions, so please keep in mind that what is customary in my experience may not apply to your case. In my own experience serving on selection committees for fellowships and academic positions, we have really been looking for references from people that the applicants have actually worked with (and preferably for) who can provide very specific examples about their expertise, capabilities, and work ethic. For this reason, it is likely that you would be expected to get references from your past and current supervisors, and if there are any missing ones that cannot be reasonably explained (e.g. by illness, death, etc.), it would seriously damage your chances for being considered. Having said that, excellent references provided by experts other than your own current and past supervisors can be quite compelling as additional evidence of your value. However, for this, I would not recommend asking a complete stranger, but rather someone who does know your work and who has responded positively to it (e.g. the external examiner of your PhD thesis, or someone who has reviewed one of your papers and who might have directly given you positive feedback on it.) The important thing to remember, is that the least hint of criticism or even anything less that 100% support in these reference letters can be enough to get your application sidelined immediately and you really have no way of knowing what to expect of someone you don’t know. In addition, it is customary to personally request such references, which is a challenge to do if you don’t know the person at all.
      Please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, and reflect my own experience and the conventions prevalent in my own discipline – thus they might not apply to you.
      Good luck! 🙂

        Juvénal said:
        March 31, 2017 at 9:07 am

        Thank you very much, indeed. I wasn’t sure of how to choose. Now it becomes clear.

    Fatimah said:
    December 26, 2018 at 6:04 pm

    Thank you I fouund these tips are very helpful

      Faye Hicks responded:
      December 30, 2018 at 5:40 am

      Thanks! I’m so glad you found them useful! 🙂

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