How to ask for letters of reference


What do referees need to know?

  • the deadlines
  •  how the reference will be collected
  •  any relevant details of the application process
  •  your reasons for wanting the job or doing the course
  •  selection criteria
  •  relevant academic/professional/other experience

What documents might be helpful to your referee that you should have readily available?

  • CV
  • Application
  • Job advertisement

HOWEVER, rather than overloading your referee with information, initially approach them with a précis of your CV and application. Include only the most relevant information which will help them to write an effective reference for the opportunity you are applying for – or ask them what would be most helpful. Ideally discuss your plans with them face-to-face. It may be appropriate to draft some text you think is desirable for the reference and make this available to a referee. Although they are not obliged to use it, it may save them a lot of time and also enable you to get important points across.

Who should your referees be?

THE employer/institution often stipulates from whom they would like references. Also, take time to generate your own list of candidates and which of your skills, experience and qualities they can most accurately and reliably comment on.  For specific applications, note the selection criteria each reference is best placed to discuss. Do your referees collectively provide a well-rounded picture of you that includes extra-curricular (including work) and academic activities?

When should you approach your referee?

START thinking about potential referees as soon as possible – even before you’ve made any decisions about applying. This means you have time to discuss your plans with them, give them relevant information and provide them space and time to write a well thought out reference. Building relationships and networking with academics, employers, and others is an important part of being at university: it’s easier and more pleasant to write a reference for someone familiar than for someone who is a vague presence on a database or work rota*.  A more personal reference is also likely to have a bigger impact on selectors.

TWENTY-FOUR hours before a deadline is not the time to surprise someone with the honour of being your referee. Your academic referee will be providing references for other students as well as attending to their normal teaching, administrative and research responsibilities. Do not expect them to write tailor-made references every single application. If you want well thought out references, use your referees sparingly. Some applications allow you to indicate that referees should not be approached until you have been selected for interview. Consider using this option to avoid reference fatigue.

ALWAYS ask for permission before you apply.

*This advice comes directly from academics and employers.  I’m not just making it up.

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