Asking for a reference letter: how-to

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][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?

4 thoughts on “Asking for a reference letter: how-to

  1. Nice post! I wish you'd done it 2 weeks before because our SSHRC deadline has just passed, but it still holds true for all those other references. As a reference writer, I'm not so worried about having a complete letter, but it would be GREAT if people asking for a reference provided me with the information I need so that I don't have to ask for it. And I do have to ask for it, every time. If I get last minute requests now, I tell those students that I can't do the reference.

    I'd add that it's not a good idea to ask someone to be a reference who taught you more than three years ago, unless it was your PhD supervisor.


  2. Oh oh … a button has been pushed!

    I wrote something up about this way back in the day when I was grad officer for six years or so, and subjected every grad student in the program to compulsory “how to apply for a fellowship” sessions. One of the things I included that is related to what you talk about is *which* prof to ask for a letter. My advice about that back then ran like this:


    • It’s too late to do much at this stage to impress profs for this year’s competition … the best you can do is choose wisely when you decide who to ask to write.
    • There are various potentially conflicting desiderata
    1. A well-respected letter writer carries more weight (n.b. don’t confuse well-respected with well-known)
    2. The writer must be well-acquainted with your work.
    3. The writer should be impressed by the work you’ve done for him or her.
    4. Pick someone you’ve got reason to believe writes good letters of reference … some profs do, and some do not. (Your evidence in obviously indirect … but consider who has written for people who have gotten awards in the past, whether the person seems the sort to pay some attention to what he or she is doing or is likely to just toss something together, etc.)
    NB that 2 and 3 are absolutely more important than 1.

    Item 4 is important, and actually runs counter to 1 in many cases. There comes a time in some eminent professors' lives where they never again write a second draft of anything … not even journal articles, so certainly not letters of reference for lowly grad students. So their letters have negative weight. Some people write the same letter for every student. A professor with a bit of writing ability and a naggy voice of conscience that makes them pay enough heed to write a good letter can make a big difference.

    I also stamped my feet about a couple of things that are in your form letter, but that people might overlook. By being on way too many adjudication panels, I had pretty strong evidence that professors are often stinking cowards who will not tell students that they'd be better off getting someone else to write a letter instead. So I recommended putting the request in a way that would call for the barest minimum of honesty or moral courage on the part of the person asked if the letter they would write was going to harpoon the student's chances:

    • Asking for letters: if you say “Will you write me a letter”, almost anyone will say “yes” … that’s not necessarily a good thing, because it might be that they are saying “yes” to avoid hurting your feelings. Better to ask something like “Do you think you’re in a position to write me a letter that will help my chances for getting an external award?” They can then give you an honest estimate of how strong a letter they’d be likely to write, and can suggest that you might be better off getting a letter from another professor. (Try not to take this as an insult … that’s not how it’s intended.)

    And, secondly, I thought at the time, again based on having been on adjudication panels of various sorts, that people were making a mistake when they thought they should get a letter from someone in their current department who barely knew them rather than just getting all their letters from a previous school. So I said:

    • If you’re new in the program, it’s fine (better, in fact) to get all your letters from profs in your previous department. The department can say nice things about you in the departmental rankings.


  3. I say all of these things too! Wonderful advice. The other thing we might want to add, if the plan is to revise this post for archiving, is a discussion about a) why not to ask TAs for reference letters, and b) things you can think about doing when the TA is the person who knows your work the best (i.e. have the TA provide specific information from assignments or tutorials/labs that the course director puts in a letter he/she writes).


Comments are closed.