Every year a large number of current and former students ask me to provide reference letters for everything from summer jobs or internships to graduate programs, postdoctoral fellowships, and faculty positions. If you are considering asking me to be a reference for you, you should not feel awkward or uncomfortable about it: writing reference letters is part of my job, and I’m happy to do it, with three provisos:
- I need to know you well enough to speak with confidence on your behalf. Usually this means that you have taken more than one class with me (ideally, including one small enough for me to know you by name) and that you have met with me in office hours to discuss your work, your interests, and your future plans. The better sense I have of you as a person, the more I can say beyond reciting your academic results.
- You need to ask me well in advance. Two weeks is the minimum notice you should give me; if you are asking for several letters, more time is better, especially if you hope they will be customized. If I have provided a reference for you before, sometimes I can turn another one around in a few days, but you should not assume that your timing emergency is mine: during the teaching term especially, there are a lot of tasks and students competing for my attention.
- You need to provide all the relevant material in one well-organized electronic package — again, well ahead of the deadlines. This means:
- a copy of your academic record (unofficial is fine)
- your resume
- a draft version of your personal statement or research proposal
- all application forms (be sure to provide any of your personal information that they ask for)
Also include a cover sheet with a clear list of places you need references sent to, by what process (email, electronic form, hard copy, sealed envelope to you, etc.), and by what date, with all necessary contact information. In short, make it as easy as possible for me to get it right and get it done. I don’t want to have to chase you down for missing pieces or collate multiple follow-up messages with corrections or additions.
Before you do anything else, do your research. Don’t take up a busy person’s time asking for letters for programs for which you are not qualified or well suited, and don’t ask for dozens of letters because you can’t make up your mind: be focused and selective. Remember that your preparation for the application process becomes part of what we know about you!
If you aren’t sure whether I’m the right person to write for you, come and talk to me. Though good grades generally mean stronger letters, they aren’t always the most important thing — but that’s why it’s important that I know who you are, not just how you did.
How to Ask for a Reference Letter: This article in University Affairs is aimed at graduate students but much of its advice applies equally well to undergraduates.
Asking for a Reference Letter: how-to. This article includes a good form letter — but note that many referees (myself included) would rather not get all the related paperwork until (and unless) we have agreed to write the reference for you. The comments here are also worth reading through.