References and letters of recommendation

When applying for a job or to graduate school, strong references and letters of recommendation are important tools that can help set you apart from other candidates. Keep these points in mind when asking for a reference or letter of recommendation. 


Choose the right reference

good reference: A professor in whose class you earned a good grade or an employer who has commented positively about your work. 

great reference: In addition to the above, they can comment on your personality and passions.

Academic reference 

Consider any professor:

  • who has seen your best academic work
  • with whom you’ve participated in a research project (e.g. laboratory work)
  • with whom you engaged in a quarter-long special topics project
  • with whom you visited during their office hours
  • with whom you still communicate

Work reference 

Consider any Employer:

  • where you received promotions
  • where you completed any special projects
  • where you can qualify or quantify your contribution to the organization
  • where you left the organization on good terms
  • with whom you still communicate

Letters of recommendation

Provide materials for your reference

Just asking your reference to write you a letter of recommendation is not enough, and your letter, and consequently your chances of getting the job or grad school you want, will suffer if you do not follow through. You need to give your recommender all the tools they need to write an effective, compelling, and close letter.

  • Give your recommender the following items:A description of the scholarship/position/graduate program for which you are applying
  • Exact wording of what should be covered in the letter – skills, qualifications and accomplishments to be highlighted
  • List of specific, relevant experience: class projects, research, and papers for faculty; responsibilities and accomplishments for supervisors
  • Resume, cover letter or personal statement used to apply
  • Deadline and specific submission instructions or forms
  • Name and address of letter recipient and a stamped addressed envelope (without your return address with room for the recommender to put their return address) for submission


  • Communicate via one email trail
  • Be timely and responsive to additional information requests from your reference
  • Show thanks!
  • Keep in touch – let you recommender know the status of your application (including if you have reconsidered and decided not to apply)

Most programs will give you the option to waive your right to view the letter of recommendation in the application portal.  We advise students to waive this right to access the letter for several reasons: it shows your confidence in your choice of recommender, waiving adds credibility to an honest recommendation (a candid recommendation is what the committee will be wanting versus generic praise) and indicates to reviewers that you have nothing to conceal.


Good letters can take time to write, revise, and polish. Give your recommender:

  • 4 weeks MINIMUM to write a letter
  • 1-2 weeks MINIMUM for subsequent letters
    • Indicate that you will need multiple letters

Asking for a letter – leave yourself options!

Make sure you ask in a way that asks for a strong and positive letter and gives the person you are asking an easy way to say no. For example:

Do you feel you know my work well enough to write me a good recommendation letter?

I know you are very busy, but do you think you could find the time to write me a strong recommendation letter?

Giving an out will save them from having to force through a letter they aren’t excited about, and saves you from receiving a mediocre recommendation letter. It also preserves unhurt feelings on both sides.

Here is a presentation with tips on getting great letters of recommendation.

Start asking NOW!

Ask for a letter of recommendation as soon as you feel that you have rapport with a recommender, even if you do not need one at that moment. A fresher letter is a better letter, and you will have it in hand when you do need it.

Give thanks

Send a sincere “thank you” note; remember that your recommender took time from their busy life to do you a big favor.

Also, let your reference know when you hear about your application, whether or not you got the position or entry into the program. This will let the recommender feel like they are participating in your future, and will help them gauge future letters for you and other students.