Five Unwritten Rules for Getting Academic References

So you are applying to college or a program at a college and you need references. Who do you ask? When do you ask them? What do you tell them? All of these are important questions to answer as you are going through what can be the easiest or hardest step for any application.

I don’t want to brag, but I have written a lot of reference letters– and all my students got into their programs or got the grants they went for. (Mostly because I’ve been lucky to teach some amazing young people– but I like to think I helped.)

Now that I’m applying to PhD programs, I’m thinking through some of the same advice that I gave my students while I was a teacher:

1. Ask Someone Who Knows You Well (and Who You Think Will Write a Good Reference)

As a high school English teacher, I was frequently asked for references by my juniors and seniors. What is surprising about this, for some of them, is that I didn’t have them for as long as some of the other teachers likely did. Teachers who have known them for 2-3 years likely could have spoken to their character growth in a way that I could not. HOWEVER, I find English classes a space where you generally learn a lot more about a person than in other classes. Maybe it’s how I framed my classes, with freedom of choice in independent reading, book talks, and creative writing, but I did get to know my students on a deeper level than some colleagues simply because of what they would write about.

Choosing someone who can write a good reference breaks down to two aspects: they must think highly of you to recommend you AND they should be good at written communication.

Choosing your favorite teachers isn’t a bad idea– especially since you probably (hopefully) stand out to them as a good student. (It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to know that students perform at their best for teachers they have a strong relationship with.) But, and I may be biased here, choosing an English teacher for one of your references is a good idea– as long as they like you, they will likely write a solid letter of recommendation. As much as I think I was chosen by some of my students over the years because they believed I knew them well, I am sure that it also had to do with the fact that I taught how to write well.

However many references you need, I would make a list of twice that amount. For one reason, you don’t know if any of your references might say no. For a second, if you are making several applications, it can be good to limit the amount of times someone has to go to bat for you.

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2. Ask as Early as Reasonable

While your top tier teachers and professors, the ones who really like you, might be willing to help you, the number one issue in asking for references is the time it takes to draft the letter. While I never needed more than a week for turnaround, I’m sure that there are others who do.

There is, though, the opposite. As I have been applying to PhD programs, I had to ask former professors from my masters to be my references. I knew that if I asked too early, they might forget to do it when the time came. I also knew that if I asked too late, they wouldn’t have the time to craft a letter good enough to get into the schools I am going after.

So I waited until the summer before I intended to apply (applications for PhDs open in September, overall). While I heard from most of them within a few days, my intention was that it would be in their inbox when they returned from their summer vacations.

Bonus tip: stay in contact with those who agree to help you. Let them know when you are starting your application so that they can look out for the email from the school asking for their letter of recommendation for you. It’s also a good idea to let them know how many schools you plan to apply to.

3. Tell Them About the Program/Grant/Scholarship

To help your reference understand what they are gearing their letter towards, it is helpful for them to know what they are a reference for. While a lot of general acceptance letter of references are similar, I was asked to write a letter recommending a student for a grant for their charity work in the community. If I had simply sent on my usual kind of letter, it wouldn’t be tailored to the situation in a way which would make her stand out.

For me and my PhD applications, I have been letting my references know what school it is, what degree I’m targeting, and what my research proposal is.

4. Remind Them About You

While this might not be as needed if you are currently the student of a teacher, I purposefully said in my original email to my references a few things:

  • What class I had them for
  • What major project(s) I did for them
  • What my final grade was for their class
  • What my final grade was for the overall degree program

This means that even if the details are fuzzy, they have a blatant reminder of who you are– or at least the YOU you are hoping to present to the people deciding whether or not you get into your college or get your scholarship.

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5. Tell Them if You Want Something Specific Highlighted

Whether or not you think it has been clearly stated otherwise in your request, make sure you say specific things about yourself that they can parrot in their letter. I had a student who needed to get a scholarship which highlighted extracurricular activities; I had to make sure she told me what those activities were or I would have missed the most important part of the letter for that scholarship. While you don’t want to dictate to your reference what is in their letter, you do want to equip them with the best information to put you in a good light.

Good Luck!

I imagine if you’re reading this all the way through that you are about to apply to something important– I hope these tips help you as you apply!

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