How to ask profs for grad school references

If you have paid careful heed to this advice through your academic years, you stand a good chance that an honest, unbiased reference will be complimentary about your professionalism, attention to detail, intellectual energy, ability to problem solve, set priorities and lead other students, and communicate well and with confidence in both oral and written forms. Now you are ready to approach one or more professors for a reference for graduate school.

Grad schools and the scholarships and fellowships that you will likely seek at the same time often have reference forms.

If it is an online link, provide the link to the form if possible; don’t ask us to research the program.

If it is hard-copy, provide the forms on paper along with an envelope fully addressed. If we can just complete the form by hand, fold it and lick an envelope, writing the reference is a much quicker job.

If the grad school asks for simply a letter of reference and does not have a form, their admission material usually indicates what they want the letter to cover. Printing that out will help us to compose the letter. Provide it along with an envelope with plenty of lead time, and ensure that we know when it is due.

Also provide information on the program to which you are applying, if the professor is not familiar with it. Do not email us a website address and expect us to track information down. Assemble a kit to help us do this task for you. Explain what appeals to you about the program and where it’s a great fit for you. Feed us information that can help us write a meaningful comment.

Some professors ask for a draft. The grad program would not like to think you wrote your own reference. However, it can be very helpful to have key points and examples and reminders of your accomplishments, as we write the letter ourselves.

Daily nagging is not a good idea, but it’s quite a good idea to send a gentle reminder a couple of days or a week before the deadline or the date it was agreed that you would pick up the reference, because it could be set aside and overlooked in a flurry of urgencies. If the letters are to be sent with your application, make arrangements to pick the envelopes up. For printed references, the norm is for the referee to seal the letter in the envelope and sign across the flap. For uploaded forms, the reference goes confidentially to the program. Do not expect to receive a copy of the letter.

Since you will likely not see it, what can you expect the reference to say?

Look at the criteria on the reference form. Usually, forms ask for ratings of your written communication, spoken communication, leadership abilities, intellect, initiative, and integrity. Ratings often ask us to decide whether you are in the top 2%, 5%, 10%, 25% etc. in these categories, and to provide some open-format comments on specific topics.

You can read the blank form yourself to see what the professor will need to have in mind to write a reference. The easiest way to get a complimentary one is to provide a short reminder of specific things you have done in that professor’s course that reflect on those attributes and went above and beyond your peer group.

We likely remember who you were for years afterwards, but it is not always easy to remember who did what in a large class, especially in stolen moments between grant deadlines and setting exams when we’re trying to get your form out by the deadline.

If you were in a class of 50, a rating of “top 2%” in a particular attribute would mean that you had to be the #1 student in your class in that attribute, so it would be good to help us recall examples that place you at that level, not just above average, because overstating your performance puts our reputation on the line.

It would help if you provided the professor with a true copy of your transcript as well. In this era of rules to protect your privacy, we are often unable to access your transcript ourselves, even when we are attempting to do a favour for you. While this can be a photocopy or printout from the records system and not an “official transcript” for which you have to pay, there should be no question of alteration or forgery. Ensure your permission to refer to it is explicit. You should write on it that it is an unofficial copy and the professor has your permission to check it against official records for the purpose of giving a reference, and sign and date that statement. If you wish to place a limit, such as “for the next six months” or “in relation to my application to university X” then add that to the statement.

In most cases, we will not be dwelling on your GPA, because you will be providing official transcripts to the graduate program directly, and they can evaluate those marks for themselves against their admission criteria. Your transcript just helps remind the professor which courses were your strongest areas, what types of electives you favoured, and a bigger picture of your studies outside our own specific course or courses. In some cases, if our subjective impression is that you would be a good candidate for grad studies but your marks were not outstanding, we can actually comment and put that in perspective if we are aware of your overall record.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (https://thrilllab.blog.ryerson.ca), and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.