Guide to Requests for Letters of Reference
Letters of Reference
A requirement for many jobs and graduate programs is a letter of reference. I have written numerous letters of reference over the years, and in fact I still write letters for University of Toronto students (where I have not taught since 2008). Of course, I have also had many letters written for me, so I really cannot complain.
Below is a somewhat rambling outline of my thoughts on letters of reference. I encourage you to read it. However, if you are in a rush, please go to the linked shorter page: How to ask for a letter of reference.
Question: Should You Ask me for a Letter?
Answer: Yes! If I don’t think I can write you a strong letter, I will tell you. However, before you ask me for a letter, you might consider the following issues.
- Am I the best person to write the letter?
Do I know your work well? Did you come to class frequently? Did you get reasonably good marks? Will I be able to write you a strong letter of reference? Remember, I must be honest when I say good things about you.
The best person to write you a letter is someone who knows you well as a student. So, if you have taken only one class with me, and have taken three classes with another professor, that other professor is probably a better person to ask for a letter.
Seniority may also be an issue. In the case of King’s students, depending on the position, you might want a letter from somebody who has been a professor for a long time. At King’s, most history students have a great deal of contact with professors. At the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia (where I have also taught, but as a TA or as a sessional instructor), many students have trouble gaining personal contact with full-time professors, and I may be one of the few teachers who students knew well enough to ask for a letter.
- Am I the best person to write the letter considering the position/program?
If you are applying for a position in most graduate or professional programs, then you should only ask me for a letter if my class was one in which you got good marks, or wrote a really good paper. For instance, I am frequently asked by academic programs to compare the student for whom I am writing the reference to other students who have taken classes with me.
Grades are not the only criterion which interests employers or the administrators of programs, of course. It might be more important that that you had extremely good attendance, were well-mannered, were pleasant to work with, and were honest and ethical in your behaviour. In some cases, it might be important for me to describe your cultural flexibility and your interest in new experiences.
You might consider how much weight my reference will carry. If you are applying for a reference to a Korean institution or to teach English in South Korea, I may be able to write the letter in Korean, and can certainly mould the letter to respond the usual concerns of South Korean institutions. Since my classes are concerned with East Asian history, I may be able to write a good letter for a foreign exchange elsewhere in East Asia or even Africa or Europe, as I am well positioned to describe your acceptance of new cultural experiences. Under those circumstances, I may well be the best person to write the letter.
On the other hand, some of my colleagues have taught at King’s for far longer than have I, and have extensive connections in the London area (as well as greater seniority). So they might be better letter-writers for a job in southwest Ontario.
Question: How should you ask me for a letter?
Answer: The short answer is – send me an e-mail. The longer answer is:
- Remember – writing letters is part of my job. I know (from personal experience) that it is no fun asking for letters, but don’t feel guilty! Just ask.
- Remember, please, that your letter is one of many things that I have to think about, and probably not the most urgent, personally. Treat me always as an absent-minded person who gets too many emails and will likely skim any e-mail that doesn't seem urgent: Because this is in fact what I am. In all cases, make your requests clear, loud and easily noticed.
- E-mail me as soon as possible. The subject-heading of the e-mail should be "Request for letter of reference," or similar, to make sure it doesn't end up in the pile of e-mails to be checked next week, or in the pile of e-mails to be skimmed quickly.
- If you send a request at the last minute, it is possible that I will be away from the internet or otherwise unable to respond. Also, although once I have written one letter of reference, it is usually easy for me to write another letter, I may have to do quite a bit of tweeking. For instance, letters to the USA usually have to be absolutely glowing (or they will think that I am not enthusiastic about you as a candidate), letters to Canadian universities may be slightly more candid (although still should err on the side of glowing), and letters to institutions in the UK often (in the past at least) were expected to include a critical discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the student.In any case, in this initial e-mail, include as much information as possible concerning the positions for which you are applying, perhaps including the original advertisements or job-postings.
- In this initial e-mail, tell me all the information that I need to know. Is the letter to be submitted on-line? Should I mail it with department letterhead? Should I send the letter to you, or to the organization directly? Should I send a letter right away, or do I simply need to wait for them to contact me? How will they contact me – by e-mail, phone or letter-mail? What are the due dates?
- Usually, send me information about yourself as well, especially if you have been graduated for a while. Send me your CV, or your letter or application, or any information you think might be helpful for me.
- In my response, I am likely to provide you with some information concerning how you should refer to me in the letter of application. This isn’t to show off, but merely to make my reference stronger. Also, if there are some dates that might be difficult, I will tell you. Otherwise, if I feel that I cannot write you a strong letter, or if I think other professors could write you stronger letters, I will tell you.
- Send me a reminder e-mail shortly before you need the letter sent. Of course, these should be in e-mails with the subject-heading:"Reminder: Letter of Reference. "And then send me another e-mail asking me if I have sent it! Harass me, please, with your e-mails! You don’t have to feel guilty about sending me harassing e-mails. After all, you did send me fair warning! In fact, I very much appreciate lots of harassing e-mails. I usually have a lot of little jobs, and can easily forget.
- A quick note on f) – it is usually a good idea if my letter arrives after your application. It is okay if it arrives very shortly before, but if my letter arrives too early, it may go missing (since the office will not have established a file for you yet).
- Below consider the sort of information which I would like you to give me when you request a letter of reference.
Sample requests for a letter of reference
1. Dear Adam: Would you please write a letter of reference for the Korea University summer Korean program? The letter is due by e-mail by January 1, 2015. If you think it appropriate, could you emphasize my enthusiasm for Korean history as revealed in the essay I wrote for History 2691E? I have attached the essay, in case you don't remember it.
Please consult the contact information for the program, as well as the ad, below.
2. Dear Adam:
Would you please write a letter of reference for me for a position at Success Language Institute, Shanghai? The position is as an ESL teacher for children. I need the sealed letter by September 5, 2014, so that I can send it with the rest of the application. I know that my marks weren't the best, but I think you know that I am really interested in Chinese history. I expect that they are concerned to know if I could adjust to life in China, so please discuss my general interest in Chinese history and culture. Of course, since I will be teaching children, if you can describe my character positively, that would be a big help.
My address is as follows: xx. Also, please see the ad for the position, below.
3. Dear Adam: Would you please write a letter of reference for my application to the University of Alberta law school? The letter is to be sent by seperate cover on university letterhead. All materials must arrive by February 1, 2015 or the application will not be accepted. I will send my application on December 1, 2014, and will e-mail you when I have sent it. Would you please send your letter shortly after that?
Also note that you need to include a completed questionaire with your letter. Please consult the link below for the questionaire.
Since I received very high marks in your class, could you refer to my qualities as a scholar, as well as referring to some of my more recent volunteer work (as outlined in my CV and statement of purpose) and the article I published in the Old East Association newsletter (attached)?
The address for the law school is as follows: xx.
[Note the bolded lines above. Don't feel sorry about such threatening fonts (and underlines). If there is a really frightening deadline that absolutely must be kept, then I want frightening fonts to make sure that I notice it :-). ]
4. Dear Adam: Would you please write a letter of reference for me for a position as economist in the Dalian Economic Development Agency, Foreign Trade Section? The letter must be sent on university letterhead and under seperate cover, and should arrive by November 15, 2014. I have two references from economics professors who will write about my knowledge of economics and my ability as a student, so would please write about my English writing ability? Your class was my main writing class at King's. Also, Dalian has a great deal of business with South Korea, so if you could write about my knowledge of and enthusiasm for Korean history, that would be a really big help. If you need to look at my old exams, I can e-mail you a PDF file. I have also attached both essays that I wrote for your class. Finally, of course I will have to speak English in this job, so if you could also discuss my communication skills, I would appreciate it.
The address of the Foreign Trade Section is as follows: xx. It would really help if you wrote the address in both Chinese and English, as letters sent in English sometimes go missing.
[Perhaps it is no longer true that English addresses go missing in China, but this sort of information is often very helpful].
5. Dear Adam: Would you please write a letter of reference for an MA program in History at St. Teresa's University. I know that you only taught me for one course, but I have two other really strong references, and my third reference, yy, is on sabatical and hasn't answered my two e-mails. I think I need the third reference mostly to fulfil the application requirements, and the other two referees have already sent. I know that it is short notice, but I need the letter to be sent by e-mail by September 30, 2016.
You feel guilty asking me to be default letter writer? Don't be - since I have asked people to be default letter writers in the past. In part, the letter of reference is a bureaucratic requirement, and if you have two really strong letters, a third less informative but still positive letter might be necessary. In fact, it reduces the pressure on me a little bit to know that you have two other really strong letters, even though I will do my best to write a strong but honest letter as well. Asking me at the last minute is another matter, but provided that you sound apologetic, I will do my best. Obviously, even a default letter-writer needs to actually have given decent marks and be generally supportive, especially for letters to be sent to academic programs.
Post-letter – what should you do?
Once more, letters of reference are part of my job. Nevertheless, a verbal thank-you sent over e-mail is always appreciated. Of course, if you get the job or the position, I will want to boast about you, so do let me know if you are successful. Even if you are not successful, occasional e-mails allow me to keep track of your progress, which can help me in letter-writing.
If you are one of those well-organized types who remembers to send post-cards, then a post-card is always nice (although neither required nor expected).
However, please, no thank-you gifts: Some students have given me small gifts in the past. Should any of those students be reading this, I should note that these gifts have always been tasteful and have never been excessive or embarrassing in any way. I have always been very thankful for them. Nevertheless, I would like to strongly discourage this practice. Young people are graduating into a poor economy. You should either save your money, or spend it on your own pleasures.
When you feel completely established, and have a secure job or business, and no longer need my reference, then it is completely up to you. But I don’t think it is ethical to accept presents from students or struggling applicants.
Otherwise, my reference is my honour – so if you get the position, be honest and ethical in your behaviour, work hard and do well. I really cannot ask for anything more than that.
Best of luck!