To Whom It May Concern: Some advice for students seeking references

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

A number of recent events have prompted me to reflect again on the subject of reference writing.

Offering a letter of recommendation, or completing one of the myriad different online forms, is not a trivial task, either in terms of the labour involved or the potential significance of the resultant document. In this post I want to make some suggestions for any students seeking a reference from an academic, regardless of their discipline, which I hope will make the process more effective (and less fraught) for all parties.

1. Ask. Firstly, do ask a potential referee before you offer their name to the organisation seeking the reference. On one level this is common courtesy. However it also does two things to the benefit of the applicant: it forewarns the academic that they need to budget some time for writing a reference and gathering the relevant information (see 3, below); it also gives them the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate referee for the specific job. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the first person you should ask for a reference is your personal tutor. For finalists or graduates requiring a second academic commendation the next person to ask is usually your project supervisor.

2. Ask in good time. Most academics have received an email that boils down to “Please can you write a reference for me, I need it by tomorrow”. Although the activities that fill the life of a modern academic can be highly variable, you can be certain of one thing – their time was already over-committed, even before you added your request to their “to do” list. If you want a commendation from them, please give as much time as possible. Contact the potential referee as soon as you know you are going to need a reference (and if 24 hrs or less before the deadline is *really* when you first became aware of the requirement, the rest of your application is probably too rushed as well).

3. Provide as much information for your referee as possible. Not all references are the same and a bland request to “write a reference” can leave the referee scrabbling to know what exactly is needed to fulfill the particular requirement. Help your referee to help you secure a timely reference by providing them with as much of the following information as you are able:

  • What is the job/course for which you are applying?
  • When is the deadline by which the reference is due? Does the organisation wanting a reference need it now, or only at a later stage if requested?
  • Is there a particular form on which to submit the reference, or is a letter on headed paper appropriate?
  • To whom should the reference be addressed (A particular person? The Admissions Tutor?), and at what postal address? Even if the letter is going to end up being sent electronically, there are still conventions regarding the layout of a letter which require these crucial bits of info
  • Is the referee supposed to send the reference directly to the organisation, or give it back to you to send?
  • Even if it is not an essential part of the current application, a copy of your most up to date CV/Resume is also extremely useful for the referee.
  • A list of the module names (not just codes) you have studied and the marks achieved in completed units (these WILL be checked, but it is useful in producing the first draft to be reminded of topics at which you have performed particularly well).
  • If you have done a final year project: Who was it with? What were you investigating? What methods were you utilising?
  • Any other relevant background information that, in a perfect world, you would like the referee to mention: Volunteering? Summer placements? Societies and Hobbies? Mitigating circumstances that may have affected that module in which you got a lower-than-usual mark? Of course the referee is entirely at liberty to ignore these, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

4. Send them a courteous reminder. All academics are spinning a lot of plates and there is a danger that, despite their best intentions, your reference will get drowned out by the tyranny of other responsibilities. If your deadline is approaching and you suspect that the reference may not have been completed, then it is perfectly appropriate to send a brief reminder email. Make sure the tone of this is appropriate, accusations of negligence are not well received.

5. Keep in touch with your referee. If someone has gone to the trouble of writing you a recommendation for a particular role, it is nice to let them know about the outcome of the process; did you get the job? if not, what feedback did they offer you for next time? Even more crucially, let your referee know as soon as possible if you are not pursuing an application, so that they do not waste time researching and writing a letter that is not actually needed. I have had more than one conversation in the last couple of years along the following lines:
Me: “Did you get onto that MSc programme you were going for?
Student: “Oh, I decided not to apply in the end” possibly, as they see the steam emanating from my ears, with the addition of a “but thank you for writing the reference“.

Following these simple steps will hopefully aid you in getting an appropriate reference in a timely fashion.

Please feel free to add any additional recommendations in the comments section.

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