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Reference Letters: Who to ask and how to ask for them! Liz Lemon helps us out

At some point in your graduate education you’ll have to ask for a letter of reference. It might be for a funding application (see my previous post) or it might be for another program (med school, law school, PhD programs etc). But you’ll need to ask people to write wonderful, glowing praise for you in their free time. Which is a daunting, and intimidating task.

But the good news is that your profs and supervisors are expecting this. They’ve done it before, and know the process. So don’t be afraid!

And of course, because it’s me, I’ll bringing in a friend to help with the post. So without further ado dear readers, Liz Lemon.

Liz Lemon!

1: Who do I ask?

This is a tough one, especially early on in your career. It gets easier as you progress through your graduate career as you have your supervisor(s), as well as smaller graduate class instructors to choose from. But no matter what stage you’re at, when selecting people, there are a few things you want to bear in mind.

One reference *should* be your supervisor, as if it isn’t, this raises flags to potential admissions committees (some scholarships *require* one reference be your supervisor). There may be (legitimate) circumstances where you can’t or don’t want to use your supervisor. From what I’ve heard, if you do this, be prepared to explain why. Outside of your supervisor, professors who know you, classes you did well in, those are good starting points. If you’re allowed 3 or more references, you may want to consider broadening your scope – while two academic references can comment on your performance as a student, a third person who can comment on you as a volunteer or in a non-academic capacity may make you seem more well rounded. But that’s your decision.

For those in undergrad, this is a tough situation to be in as you likely don’t have a supervisor who you can call on, and your classes are of the 300-400 student variety. If there are professors you know well, and whose classes you did well in, then approach them. But make sure to follow step 2 and 3 even more closely, as they may not know you as well as you think or would like.

At the end of the day, be sure to pick people who take the process seriously. You want a personalized, passionate letter about you – not one that was copy-pasted from Google.


Find a good referee is tougher than finding mac and cheese.

2: Meet with them

Don’t ask for a recommendation over email if you can avoid it; if they’re in Halifax and you’re here, then obviously email, but if they’re down the hall, go see them. The personal touch is always nice, and you can cover a lot more ground in person than via email. If they ask, be ready to explain what you’re applying to, why you’re applying and where you’re applying. All that information will help them tailor the application to you, which leads me to my third point.
Yes, I'll hold.

In short: You should really talk to Dr Pizza in person.

3: Make it easy

Make this easy for your references. One way to do that is to give your references an “admissions package” with all relevant information. Give your references a copy of the requirements for the program, a copy of your resume, your transcripts and any other relevant information (statement of interest, autobiographical sketch etc). Anything that will help them see *why* you would be a competitive candidate for whatever it is you’re applying to. You want them to be able to write this reference easily, and focus on the key areas you think are relevant to your application – be that leadership (in the case of the Vanier scholarship), or your experience with the medical system (for medical school). If you want them to highlight specific things, give them that information up front.

And if it needs to be sent via snail-mail, then give them an envelope with the address and stamps already on it.

I wonder if anyone is reading the alt-text?
…. Okay I’ll let you in on a secret. These GIFs have very little to do with the post. You may have figured that out already.
4: Thank them afterwards

This is crucial. Odds are you’ll need another reference from them later, so be sure to stay in their good graces. And let’s be honest – the least you can do for someone who helps you out is say thanks afterwards.

This should be you after your application is in!
After this is all done, you should be hi fiving a million angels!

For other thoughts on this, check out these great articles at University Affairs and this article on WikiHow that goes through exactly how to write a letter asking for a reference.

So what do you think? Any pointers or suggestions for those asking for letters of reference?

Posted in Finances, New Students, Thesis Tagged with: , ,
One comment on “Reference Letters: Who to ask and how to ask for them! Liz Lemon helps us out
  1. Colette says:

    Hi Atif
    Well this will certainly help me explain to undergrads considering graduate studies the ways they can go about getting a reference. Thanks a bunch!

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