How to ask your professor for a reference letter
Whether you are applying for an advanced degree or a job, asking your professor for a letter of reference is a crucial, if not difficult step. The right reference can mean the difference between being accepted and rejected. But requesting this important docment can be stressful, and it needs to be handled delicately and professionally. Here are some tips.
Who to choose
Choose your referee wisely. Here are some criteria to think about.
1. How well did you do in that prof's course? If you achieved a great mark, chances are the professor will be well aware of who you are and supportive of your application. A professor will be asked to rate your abilities and suitablity for graduate work on any application for graduate school or other institution. If he/she is not familiar with you, that will be difficult. On the other hand, I have been approached by desperate students who did not do well in my course. Giving these students a reference, I felt, was doing them a disservice.
2. How well does the professor know your work? How current is your relationship with that person? A reference from 10 years ago, of course, is going to sound stale. Knowledge is not static and neither are you.
3. What is the nature of your relationship with this professor? We're human. We all have better rapport with some people than with others. Someone with whom you have personal chemistry is a good candiate to be a referee. An authentic letter from a credible person who is knowlegeable in your chosen field will convey to the readers that the professor knows you well.
How to approach your referee
Once you’ve decided who to approach, find out if they have reference policies. Some people will post these on their institutional websites. Follow their directions. If you were accustomed to dealing with your prof by email, then contact him or her that way first. If the professor works at home, email may be your best bet. If the prof ignores his/her email, try to make a short appointment with that person. Many have departmental offices and do show up occasionally. You might even be able to make an appointment. Speak to a receptionist, or at least learn when 'office hours' are.
In your initial approach,
- Introduce yourself, and remind them that you took Course 101 in Semester X (or whatever the case). I appreciate when students do that. Sometimes, I will look up their grade profile in my records to refresh my memory. We have hundreds of students!
- Indicate that you are looking for a a strong reference;
- Explain why you need a letter from that person specifically (that person may be a credible authority in your field of interest). In my case, since I teach communications, sometimes students ask me to comment on their performance in the course (quality of work, teamwork skills, ability to follow instructions, and leadership).
- Be clear about the application deadline. The term "absent-minded professor" is a reality.
If this person is reluctant to give you a reference after you have disclosed this information (it has happened to me that I have not always agreed to serve as a reference), then it's best not to use him/her as a reference. A bad reference can damage your application.
Have a package of information ready (many schools provide this). I have been emailed these forms, but sometimes, it's good to meet with the person and fill them out with them.
If you are applying to graudate school, you may also want to send the professor other parts of your application such as
- unofficial transcripts and explanation for low grades
- a current resumé or CV;
- a draft of your statement of interest and research proposal
- your personal contact details;
- a covering letter stating who you are, the program of interest, why it interests you, when the letter is due, instructions for the professor afterwards (i.e. will you pick it up?) should it be mailed to you in stamped, self-addressed envelope? Should it be mailed directly to the institution at the address you have included on an address label in a departmental envelope?
Ask your referees if they would also like:
- a writing sample and/or copy of the professor’s comments on your work;
- to be reminded a week before the letter is due.
For a work reference, it is important to indicate the type of work you are applying for, and how the course was relevant to that application.You may even want to draw the person's attention to a particular project where you performed well, or demonstrated certain relevant skills such as leadership, research or originality. Please also indicate when you took the course, and what your grade was, and any other details about your participation in the course that you think are relevant to your application.
Expect the best
In general, your instructor is committed to your success. We thrive on hearing stories of your accomplishments. So, do not be afraid to ask. We all get asked. It is part of the territory. I am a community college professor, so in many cases I am asked by students to assist the with applications to a university, and once in a while for an advanced degree.
Thank-you and keeping in touch
Be sure to send your professor a courteous thank-you letter. Also, let him or her know if you were successful. If you think you may require another letter from this person, then continue to keep in touch and update him/her of your progress at least once a year.
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