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Asking for References & Letters of Recommendation

Whether you are job hunting or applying to graduate or professional school, gathering references is a very important part of the process. Deciding whom to ask and then asking them can be difficult. To make it easier, plan ahead. Develop positive relationships with those who may later serve as references for you.

General Tips

  • Choose your reference writers carefully. References should come from people who know you well from an academic, volunteer or work setting and can provide specific comments rather than generalizations. Identify people you know such as professors, employers, supervisors, advisors, customers or business associates. Letters of recommendation are best if written by people who have excellent written communication skills. The positions or notoriety of people are less important than what they have to say about you and how well they say it.
  • To decide who to ask to be your references, think of your audience. If you are applying for employment, generally work references are best. If you are applying to graduate school, faculty references are usually required.
  • Ask for permission to use people as references. Ask if they are willing to serve as strong, positive references for you. Give them 2-4 weeks to write letters; do not ask at the last minute. Provide them with information regarding the type of position or graduate program and application process and ask if they can meet the deadlines. Follow up with them as the deadline nears to determine if they have completed the recommendation.
  • Ask your reference writers what information they need from you. Supply them with a copy of your resume and/or personal statement, a copy of your transcript, a list of courses you have taken from them, copies of papers you have written and/or a list of your skills that you would like them to highlight. Information about the programs or employers to which you are applying, including the job description or posting, may help them provide more effective recommendations. The more information you give them, the more detailed and thorough they can be.
  • Finally, write each of your references to thank them for their time and let them know you appreciate their efforts. Keep them informed of your activities.

Employment References

  • When applying for employment, you will usually be asked to supply a list of references. The list includes names, titles, business and email addresses and telephone numbers of people who have agreed to serve as your references. If you are asked to submit written letters of recommendation, you may either provide copies of general letters of recommendation you have, or request that each of your references write a letter directed to the specific employer. Three references is usually the standard request, but you may include up to five.
  • If you are not asked to submit written letters of recommendation, you may still want to include copies of ones you have, particularly if they are especially positive and strong.

Graduate or Professional School References

  • Graduate and Professional programs often provide a link to an online recommendation form emailed directly to each of your reference writers. They also often include specific instructions about the type of people from whom they want recommendations and about what they want them to write. The number and type of recommendations depends on the individual school or program, so be sure you understand the requirements. Some programs may ask you to indicate whether you wish to waive the right to see the recommendations. Waiving the right to see a letter may increase its validity.
  • If you do not plan to apply for further education at this time, you may want to collect letters of recommendation and keep them for use later. Before you graduate, talk with your faculty or research supervisors regarding your future plans for graduate or professional school and ask them to write general letters of recommendation now. Then, in the future, you can provide them with current copies of your resume, copies of your personal statement, and the general letters they had written earlier, to help them remember you and remind them of specific details.