Requesting Letters of Recommendation
You may need letters of reference from instructors at Queen's to support applications for graduate school, scholarships, study-abroad programmes, and even some jobs. The following guidelines are designed to make this process efficient for your referees and thus to help get you the strongest recommendations possible.
Note that these are only guidelines. Different instructors may have different requirements. Once you have secured the agreement of your referees, ask what they require from you.
Choosing a Referee
Whom should you ask to write a letter of recommendation for you? It’s usually best to approach the instructors who know you best. These instructors might not be the ones from whom you have received the highest grades: an instructor who assigned you an A may not be your best referee if you were one of 100 students and never spoke in class. An effective letter of reference must be specific and detailed, so you should choose referees who know you well enough to have insight into your ability, your academic interests, and your qualifications. Instructors with whom you have studied more than once are usually good choices because they can comment on your development.
Does the rank of the referee matter? That is, does a recommendation by a full professor carry more weight than that of a graduate student? The answer is that it does, to a point. The longer a referee has been teaching, the larger the sample to which he or she can compare your work, and the more experience he or she is likely to have in writing letters of this sort. That said, you should not hesitate to ask a Teaching Fellow or junior faculty member to write a letter for you if you’re confident that he or she will offer you strong support. You are likely to be better off with a detailed and enthusiastic letter from a junior scholar than a vague and lukewarm letter from a senior scholar who can only speak about you in general terms.
It is reasonable and appropriate to ask your referees whether they are able to provide you with strong letters: you don’t want to wind up with lukewarm recommendations because you were too shy to ask your referees could provide the degree of support you need. If your referees feel any hesitation, they will find ways of saying so, perhaps by telling you that you’d be better off asking somebody who knows you better, or who has more recent knowledge of your work. If you hear this sort of response, take the hint. It’s not a rejection, but an attempt to help: referees don’t want to write vague, hesitant letters any more than you have them as part of your application.
In this as in all requests for help, politeness is crucial. You must recognize that whether they agree to write letters for you or not, the professors you approach are doing what is most helpful for you.
- Ask early: It takes time to write a good letter, and instructors may receive dozens of requests each year. They may refuse last-minute requests, and in any case their letters will be most effective if they don’t have to be written in a hurry. Ask at least two weeks before the letters are due; the more time the better.
- Have your paperwork in order: Are there other forms for your referee to fill out? Supply them promptly, and don’t forget to fill out any portions that require your input. Indicate the deadline for each letter or recipient clearly in writing. Inform your referee whether the letter is to be sent directly to the recipient or whether you will collect it. If you want your referee to send the letter on directly, be sure to include addressed envelopes with sufficient postage.
- Make lists: If you request more than one letter or that the same letter be sent to multiple recipients, make a list for your referee clearly indicating all deadlines. The more organized you are, the more you will impress your referee with your professionalism.
These requirements may vary with the referee and with the nature of your application(s), but as a rule you should be prepared to provide each referee with the following:
- A brief note explaining what you are applying for and why it is important to you.
- Any forms or instructions provided by the program or job to which you are applying.
- If your application includes a plan of study or statement of intent, it is vital that you show it to your referee; referees are generally ask to comment specifically on such statements. Some referees will even offer to help you revise your statement; you should not expect this sort of help, but always accept it when it is offered!
- A résumé indicating current contact information, recent employment, achievements, and skills relevant to your application(s). Your résumé can sometimes tell your referee useful things about you that are not apparent in your academic record.
- A writing sample. An essay that you wrote for a class taught by your referee is a good choice, for it will help him or her to remember your work. If you feel that an essay from another class better represents your abilities, include it too, or instead.
- An unofficial, copy of your transcript (optional). Note that if you include this, you must select one of the options on the FIPPA Reference Letter Request Form authorizing your referee to consult your academic record.
- The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) Reference Letter Request Form. Note that while all referees are supposed to ask for a copy of this form, in practice not all do. If you do not provide one, then your referee is technically not allowed to make any reference to your academic record, even if you provide a copy of your transcript. Thus, if you would like your referee to mention your grade or standing in his or her class, you should provide, or at least be prepared to provide, a copy of this form.
If an instructor agrees to write a letter of recommendation for you, don’t assume that he or she has also agreed to act as a general reference. Ask permission before including his or her name on your résumé.
Let your referee know whether your application was successful. Instructors who have taken the trouble to write for you will want to know how you fared. And when all is done, write a note (e-mail is generally sufficient) to say thank you.