On Campus

How do I get a reference letter?

You’ll need one to get into grad school, so start early. Lesson 1: Be an annoying keener.

With distressing regularity, anyone who has taught in a university for any length of time receives an email that goes something like this:

Dear Professor Smith,
You probably don’t remember me, but I was a student in your Intro 101 class back in 200X. After working for a few years, I’ve decided I would like to go to graduate school, and was wondering if I could possibly trouble you for a reference letter. I got a 74 per cent in your class, and I have appended my resumé showing what I have been up to since I graduated. I know this is a shot in the dark, but you are almost the only professor I could even ask, and I could really use your help.
Sincerely yours,
“A” student

Reference letters are a necessary part of any application to graduate or professional school, along with a writing sample, statement of research interest, standardized test scores, and a transcript. The relative importance of each of these varies depending on the discipline and department, with grades and test scores mattering a great deal for admission to law and medicine, whereas humanities departments tend to pay more attention to the writing sample. Yet backing it all up are the ubiquitous reference letters, testimonials written on the student’s behalf speaking to his or her ability, character and personality.

Unfortunately, many students shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to getting reference letters, and those who write meek pleas like the one above are making two fundamental errors. The first is pretty simple to fix: don’t be sheepish or apologetic. Writing reference letters for students is not a favour that professors grant to their students, it is one of their professional obligations. Crazy as it seems, professors want to get their best students into grad schools, and writing strong letters on their behalf is part of the job.

The second mistake is a bit harder to fix after the fact. The time to start making your case for a reference letter is not when you decide to go to graduate school. Rather, you need to start setting the stage for possible letters when you are still an undergrad, with your academic future still dimly imagined. This stage is built on three pillars: your course selection, your choice of professors, and your behaviour in class.

Start with course selection. It is hard for profs to get to know you in a class of 200 or 300 students, which is why you have to find at least a couple of courses, preferably in the upper years, that have a maximum enrolment of 30 students or so. Take these courses even if you aren’t particularly interested in the topic, since the attention and recognition you will get from the professor will more than make up for dull content.

Second of all, pay attention to who is teaching the class. At almost every university in Canada a great deal of instruction is being off-loaded to grad students, adjunct faculty and contract workers. They tend to be young and desperate, and consequently put a lot of effort into their teaching. But they are also itinerant workers, with very little status within the profession. When you go looking for reference letters a few years down the road it might be hard just finding them, since they could be literally anywhere in the world. And even when you do track them down, chances are that they will be either still working on contracts, or even out of the academic business altogether. In either case, any reference they give you will carry relatively little weight within the profession. So when selecting your courses, do a quick check in the department calendar and find out which instructors are permanent members of the faculty, and take as many of their classes as you can.

Finally, it is useful to keep one thing in mind: professors can only write you a good letter if they know who you are, what you are like, and how your mind works. It is very hard to write a strong letter for a student when all you can really say is that “so-and-so took my class and got a B+.” So do all the readings and go to class. And when you are in class, ask a lot of questions. Then make a point of dropping by during the prof’s office hours, and pepper him or her with comments about the lecture or the readings or the assignment. In short, be the annoying keener that everyone hates.

References aren’t the most important part of your application, and it would take a truly outstanding letter to make up for miserable grades or an incompetent writing sample. But reference letters are a necessary part of your application, and they signal your acceptance into a community of scholars. If you are an undergraduate student with even the slightest thought that you might someday want to go on to graduate school, it is never too early to start working on getting those letters. Be as strategic and mercenary about it as possible—you have nothing to apologize for.

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