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Reference Letters: Who should you ask to write your reference – and how should you ask them?

Reference Letters: Who should you ask to write your reference – and how should you ask them?

If you are applying to university, you know that reference letters are a vital part of your application package.

Even though they are a part of every application, reference letters can be one of the trickiest parts of applying to university. For one thing, they are one of the only parts of the application process that are out of your direct control in terms of both content and submission. For that reason, choosing the person who will serve as your referee is an important task.

Who to ask

In most cases, you will be asked to get an academic referee, either a current teacher or someone who taught you in the recent past (within the last 2-3 years). It’s also important to consider the relationship you have with your potential referee. Chances are you’re going to get a much stronger reference letter if (1) the teacher knows you fairly well and (2) you performed well in his or her course. It’s worth emphasising this point. Although it may be unsettling to hear, you should be aware that there is such a thing as a lacklustre (or even a bad) reference letter. Don’t forget that the point of getting a reference letter is to have a referee recommend you for your desired course and university (or, in the case of a job hunt, for your dream post). So don’t ask just anybody. While a reference letter may not necessarily be the part of your application that tips the balance in your favour in terms of getting an offer, it can be the reason that an admissions team decides to turn down your application.

For this reason, if a referee appears at all hesitant to help when you approach them, it’s best to find an alternative referee. Regardless of whether it’s an issue of a lack of time or willingness, hesitation or expressions of uncertainty on the part of a potential referee are signs that you may not get the best reference letter from them.

How to ask

Etiquette is important when asking someone to write you a reference letter. The level of formality will change depending on how well you know the person, but you shouldn’t forget that, at the heart of this, you’re asking them to do you a favour that will cost them some time and thought. That being said, there is no need to be nervous about approaching your teacher for a reference letter. Most teachers expect that this will happen around application time, and most accept it as a part of their role.

When you approach a potential referee, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Ask for a strong reference. As mentioned above, you don’t want to wind up with a mediocre reference that is unlikely to add anything of real substance to your application.
  2. Act early and be clear about the deadline. It is courteous to give teachers at least a few weeks’ notice that you need a reference letter, but the earlier you approach them, the better. Teachers can get a lot of requests all at once as application deadlines approach. After you’ve secured them as your referee, send a friendly reminder email to them 3-4 days before the deadline, and politely ask that they notify you when they’ve sent off your reference letter.
  3. Have your supporting information ready. Supporting information will greatly assist your referee in writing your reference letter. It’s good to make the process as straightforward as possible for them, because you may very well need more references in the future! Relevant supporting information includes: your academic records (official or unofficial, and be sure to provide explanations of any anomalies), your CV, a summary of work you’ve done for their course (to refresh their memory), and any forms that the referee will have to fill out (fill out your details on the form beforehand).
  4. Know the details of the submission procedure. Some universities have online portals where your referee can upload the reference letter. Others ask for the reference letter to be sent by post. School or university letterhead is usually required for a reference letter. Make sure you are aware of all the requirements and let your referee know.
  5. Finally, once your reference letters are in, make sure to write your referee a thank you note, updating them on the result of your application. Show your appreciation for their hard work!