advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

From the archive: How to ask for reference letters

This is a repost of a timely how-to. Just this morning I noticed it zip across my Twitter mentions again. It’s reference letter season, and once more I’m coaching students on The Ask. This post is one of the most-read pieces in the archives, with nearly 18,000 page views as of this morning.

Refinements always welcome, so add your advice in the comments, and please share!

Cheers,
Aimée


I’m writing/rewriting/polishing five different SSHRC reference letters today (hi there, my PhD students!) I’ve obviously been asked for letters by all of them, and in my position as Grad Chair, as well, I’ve talked to a LOT of other students about the “ask.”

It seems that many of us do not know how to ask for reference letters.

I understand. It’s awkward: “Dear Professor? Can you write a glowing report attesting my awesomeness, if you’re not too busy, but I know you’re busy and I’m not sure I’m awesome anyways?” Or, worse, in your first semester at a new school, add to end “And you have never met me but I read something about you on the internet?”

I thought I would put in a post what I’m repeating to everyone who comes to meet me. Maybe next year, I’ll just link the post so people can check it out in their pyjamas instead of trying to summon the nerve to admit a lack and ask for help in person.

The ask

Do not feel awkward about asking for a letter. Use a form letter. This is a routine academic transaction. Get good at it. The letter (usually an email) should:

  • clearly state what you want,
  • graciously ask for it,
  • note why you’re asking this person and who you are
  • indicate all relevant deadlines and include all relevant paperwork,
  • offer enough context for the potential assessor to make a reasoned judgment

The form letter

Dear Prof. [insert name here

I am writing to ask if you would be willing and able to write me a positive reference for [specific job / specific scholarship / specific award]. I am asking you for this reference because [I took XXX class with you and got XXX grade or received XXX comment / I am new here and hope we might eventually work together, and your work in XXX intersects with my interests / you are my supervisor and know my work the best / I did an RA/TA for you and I hope you can speak to XXX parts of my work for you]. 

The letter is due on [specify date, and it had better not be the day after tomorrow]. It is to be [submitted electronically / mailed directly to the sponsor / returned to me so that I can submit it in my package]. I have [attached a PDF / linked to the online reference form] at the bottom of this email, should you agree to provide the reference.

I have also attached my [abstract / proposal summary / PDF of the job ad / link to the award criteria] as well as my CV. I am happy to send you any further documents, such as my unofficial transcripts, or [a longer writing sample/ a copy of the feedback you gave on my final paper / my other application materials] should you wish to see them. 

Please let me know whether or not you can provide the reference. Thank you in advance for your time and your consideration of this request. 

Best wishes,
[Your full, legal name, plus a nickname if useful,some context like 2nd year MA student, BA English XXXX, etc]

Some key points:

  • Note that this is a little formal: you are asking for a favour
  • Note that this puts all the relevant info in front of the prof to both write the letter and to determine if she wants to
  • It is often the case we can’t remember you: giving this info reminds us
  • Give your reference plenty of lead time: minimum two weeks
  • This does not assume or demand; it asks and it offers
  • Do not send giant oodles of writing; this is incredibly off-putting
Please, take this form letter and use it. If all the requests I got were filled-in versions of this template, I would be very happy. Also, can I be honest here? The letters would get written a lot sooner. You would not believe some of the requests I get, that are framed as ransom letters (“I MUST HAVE THIS LETTER BY THE END OF THE DAY”). Or that give me so little context I have to expend serious effort to figure out what’s happening (“Hey! Remember me from that class I took sometime in the last ten years? I won’t tell you which one, but can you write me a super specific letter about how great I am, based on what you remember from that? Sincerely, Katie” [no last name whose email is warriornerd@gmail.com][whose legal name is actually something like Caitlyn, so I can’t figure out who she is or when in the last ten years I might have taught her, or in what class]). Or the weird grandiose ones (“Hi, I’ve attached my 125 page MA thesis, so if you could look it over and tell everyone what an honour it is that I’ve joined your program that would be great.”) If you make it hard for me to like you because you’re so cavalier with my time, or you make it hard for me to help you because you don’t give me enough information, it’s going to be really hard to get a good letter out of me.
My feelings of frustration evidenced in the slightly (but not much) exaggerated characterizations of the last paragraph are understandable but not fair: maybe you don’t know how to ask for a letter the right way. Believe when I tell you other professors have exactly the same reactions that I do. So that’s why I wrote this today.
Hook & Eye hive mind: if you are the writer of the letters, can you suggest any alterations or edits to what I’ve suggested? What’s your experience? And if you are an asker for letters, can you offer any comments on the process? And are there other academic letter genres you’d like me to do a post on?

One thought on “From the archive: How to ask for reference letters

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s