Reference Letters: What, Who, How

Whether you are applying for grad schools, a college internship, a graduate internship or a job, you are more than likely going to get at least one request for a reference letter. But how do you get one? Who should you ask, and how? Let’s run through it together.  

There are three kinds of reference letters: 

1. Academic 

As the name suggests, this letter is written by someone who has had an academic relationship with you. While it could be any professor, I always recommend asking a major-specific professor for one of these unless, whatever you’re applying to relates to another course better. I say this because your potential employer will see that the letter has come from a professor of that field, and most consider professors to be knowledgeable and credible. So, whoever is reading your reference letter will be more likely to believe your reference if they say you’re a good fit. 

2. Professional 

This letter should be written by someone you worked with — more than likely a supervisor. Yes, it’s great if you have professional experience related to whatever you’re applying to because your reference can speak the jargon and describe your relevant work. You don’t need to have previous work in an industry to get a successful professional reference letter. Any supervisor can write about how you work with others, how you handle stressful situations or deadlines, and speak to your character and work ethic. So don’t stress if your previous work and future opportunities don’t align to a “T” with the job you’re applying for. 

3. Character 

While these letters can be written by either of the above references, you can also ask a variety of other people — from club advisors to volunteer supervisors to non-major professors. While they may not be able to speak about your academic knowledge or professional work experience, they can speak to your personality, your drive and goals, and what you’re passionate about if you ask the right person. 

 

So now that we’ve gone over the types of reference letters, and generally, what kind of people you can ask for each of them from, let’s dive a bit deeper into what makes someone a good reference. 

1. Relevance 

You should figure out who best fits the description of the reference letter requested. If the application has specific requirements like academic versus professional, that makes it easy to choose. If not, look at what skills they see a successful candidate having and who best can talk about those traits. 

2. Timing 

While you may have had the perfect supervisor or professor your freshman year, if it’s been over a year and you have more recent individuals you think can give you a good reference, go with the most recent. I recommend this simply because the more recent reference is, well, recent. Unless you have maintained a relationship with that freshman year professor or boss, they wouldn’t know who you are now, and that’s who’s applying. 

3. Reliable 

You may like a professor or boss, but if they have the bad habit of not replying to emails quickly or forgetting about tasks, you may not want to ask them for a reference. You can always shoot them an email and ask, but you should definitely have a backup. 

4. Availability

Some people are just busy and don’t have the time to write you a reference letter. It could be work, or it could be that they’ve already agreed to write a bunch of other letters. Always ask your potential reference before putting them down, and always let them know when you have listed them so they can be prepared to be contacted if that’s how the application process works. 

 

So how do you ask them? 

Sometimes if you’re still in their class or working with them, you can ask them casually when you see them. Still, I recommend emailing them regardless so that you can include any information you might forget — plus it serves as a tangible reminder for them. 

Feel free to use this template.

“Dear (Title and Name), 

I hope you are doing well (or any general greeting, a specific and personal greeting is always great too!). I’m currently applying for a (whatever position/program) and would like to see if you are available to write me a reference letter. 

Thank you, 

(Your Name)”

You can also include more information, such as a link to the posting and the deadline. 

After they reply and say they can write your letter, it is helpful to include information such as an updated resume, notes about specific experiences or skills you’d like them to focus on, and when you need the letter by if you have to upload it yourself. 

Good luck and go chase those dreams!