Although it may come as a surprise to many students, right around now is the time to start worrying about reference letters, if you intend to apply to graduate or professional programs for next academic year. Don’t worry – you aren’t out of time yet if you haven’t started. But that’s part of the point. You want to allow plenty of time for this and you absolutely don’t want to be scrambling around at the last minute.
You may enjoy doing things at the last possible moment, but the odds are strong that the people you need to write your letters do not. Yes, it’s entirely possible that your professors and other referees (if applicable) may end up writing your letters at the last minute, regardless of when you ask. Procrastination is not a character trait unique to undergrads. But they’ll still be annoyed at being asked on short notice. Even if you get your letter it’s a bad idea to annoy your referee or appear unprofessional in your request. And really, it does take time to write a decent letter. You may find if you rush people you’ll get a poor letter as a consequence or even a straight up refusal.
A poor letter, by the way, is not one that directly criticizes you. I’ve never yet seen a letter like that. But if the reference is completely formulaic and it’s obvious the referee has nothing too personal or specific to say about you – now that’s a poor letter. Please keep in mind that the point is not simply to produce a couple of reference letters to prove that you can but rather to present references that speak to whatever qualities are sought by the programs you wish to enter. Properly tailored references are far better than general ones, and references that only prove you convinced someone to write a letter are almost useless.
A referee may ask that you give them a copy of your CV and/or any personal statement from the relevant application. You should have them available in case this happens. Unless you know your referee very well indeed (which is not very common, in our modern educational system) some additional details about you may go a long way towards personalizing what might otherwise seem too cookie cutter. Even if you do know the person very well, don’t be offended if they ask for the material. People who write reference letters tend to write a lot of reference letters. They may simply have a system. So don’t take the request personally.
It goes without saying that when you need references you should get the kind you were told to get. Academic references come from professors and instructors (more on that in a moment) while non academic references may come from an administrator, an employer, or someone else you know. Read and pay attention to any guidelines, as they will vary from place to place. For some purposes it would be entirely out of line to present a letter from your religious leader, for example, but if you were applying for a theology program it might be required. Whatever the system, don’t try to substitute one reference for another. The requirements were determined intentionally and you shouldn’t circumvent them.
Academic references are a special case. Depending on your purposes, it may be important to get your letters from specific professors or it may be less so. For graduate programs in academic disciplines you should absolutely attempt to get letters from tenured (or tenure stream) professors – meaning “real” professors as opposed to lecturers. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the difference so don’t be afraid to ask. You might even make an effort to get one or more letters from particularly prominent scholars. For academic fields this does matter. When in doubt, speak with any professor with whom you have a rapport and get some targeted advice on who to approach for references.
For professional programs the standards are entirely different. Professional schools have no way to gauge the relative standing of your professors and so it doesn’t matter. In that case what you want are strong and personal letters from those who know you best and it’s fine to approach lecturers, graduate student instructors, or conceivably even TAs. Be wary of TAs, however, and pay attention to guidelines. That should be a last resort. But a strong and personal letter from a tutorial leader may be better than an impersonal one from a professor.
Show some consideration when you make your requests. Often you’ll be communicating by e-mail and it’s very easy to give a bad impression in that medium. Don’t request a reply “asap” or enforce rigid timelines. If you need a letter within the next three weeks it’s fine to say so, but at the same time be clear you’ll take no for an answer. No one owes you a reference, after all. If you haven’t allowed sufficient time to ask someone else that implies you feel you are entitled to the reference.
As a final note, just keep this in mind. When you’re about to ask someone to offer their opinion of your character and ability as a student, the last thing you want to do is give a poor impression immediately before that happens. So be on your best behaviour.
Questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.