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Graduate Matters

Confidence is key when asking for a reference letter

Not sure how to ask for academic reference letters? You’re not alone.


Graduate admission requirements vary somewhat from one institution and one program to another. On average, schools tend to ask for two to three letters of academic recommendation. Some institutions note that academic reference letters can be difficult to obtain; although they are preferred, relevant professional references may be considered. However, some science programs for instance, list academic references as a requirement. When academic reference letters are essential to graduate program admission, it is paramount to cultivate relationships with professors as soon as possible, when possible. The points below offer a general outline to help you create the conditions to confidently ask for recommendation.

Identify the appropriate people

Are there professors’ whose research or class greatly interests you? Do they focus on topics that you wish to further explore or, perhaps even contribute to? See more helpful hints about how to identify the best referees, here.

Begin with an introduction

You must position yourself as familiar to the professor before you ask for a reference. Quite often, professors enjoy helping students succeed, and they expect to be asked for references. The problem is, if they aren’t familiar with you or cannot confidently comment on your academic performance and potential to succeed in graduate school, they may turn you down. Dr. Maryanne Fisher, a professor in the department of psychology at Saint Mary’s University offers the following advice to graduate school hopefuls who require letters:

“Start with getting noticed. Sit in the same spot when in a large class, and attend class often. Ask appropriate, genuine, and relevant questions during class or, approach your professor afterwards or during their office hours – even if you are not achieving the top marks in the class.”

Dr. Fisher stated that office hours are particularly “under-utilized,” but that they can be a great resource in making yourself familiar to your instructor. If you are nervous about meeting with a professor, do your homework beforehand. Review the department website or their profile on Research Gate. What is their specialty? Do they manage a lab or ongoing projects? Do they need a teaching assistant or lab assistant? Request a meeting to discuss opportunities, or to ask for feedback on papers and exams.

What’s your plan?

Finally, once you have established a familiar relationship, clearly discuss your intent to pursue graduate studies and your requirement of a strong recommendation. For example: “I am applying to school X for program Y, would you be willing to provide me with a strong letter of recommendation? I can provide you with my CV, transcript, co-curricular record, or samples of writing. Please let me know in a few days, if I should find another reference.” Dr. Fisher suggests that when you ask:

“Give your professor pertinent details regarding the nature of the reference, such as requirements and due date, and provide them with ample notice to review and make a decision. It can be considered courteous, if [professors] decline because they decide that they can’t write you a strong referral.”

It can be difficult or even intimidating to connect with your professors, especially if the majority of your classes are large as an undergraduate. Attending class, conveying interest, seeking opportunities and forming relationships with professors, helps create a strong case for a reference request. Good luck!

What are your institutions policies on letters of support? Are graduate admission committees aware of the potential difficulty undergraduates’ face in obtaining letters of reference?

Jillian Marie Aucoin
Jill Aucoin is a career adviser with the career planning service (CaPS) at McGill University.
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