I’ve been wanting to write this post for a loooooong time. Clearly I’ve been too busy writing reference letters!
Let’s face it. At some point in your life you may need an academic reference (i.e. a reference from a college or university faculty member). This could be for any number of reasons including a grad school, scholarship or job application or maybe even for a volunteer position would you like to hold. Academic referees are often required to answer specific questions (rather than simply provide a general assessment) about the individual in question and in addition we are often asked to rate you (yes you!), against your peers in a number of categories including communication skills, academic ability, judgment, leadership ability, maturity and the list goes on.
One of my biggest pet peeves as a professor is the number of unqualified reference requests I get from both past and current students. Let me explain what I mean by unqualified.
An unqualified reference request has one or more of the following elements:
- I don’t know the student well; therefore I am not able to evaluate if the student’s skills and accomplishments are a good match for this program/award/position.
- The student did not perform well in the course (final grade below 75%, did not attend classes, etc.). What do you think the rankings are going to look like?
- I don’t know what I’m being asked for. The student hasn’t sent me all necessary information to evaluate if acting as a reference would make sense.
- I don’t remember the student. Gasp! Yes, this has happened. I’ve taught a lot of students and my memory isn’t what it used to be. If it’s been five years since you graduated (assuming we haven’t talked since) this could happen to you.
So what are you to do?
Here are my tips for what to consider before, at the time of and after the reference request. I hope this information will shed some light on the subject and save you (and your professors) from some awkward correspondence.
BEFORE You Ask
- How well does this person know me? If the answer is “well, she knows my student number and midterm exam grade” and that’s it – we’re in trouble. Think about what your professor might be able to say about you in relation to the program/award/position you are applying for. Draft a letter about yourself. Do it! This is a great exercise. If you don’t know what to include in a letter about yourself how will this person be able to figure it out either?
- What do I want this person to say about me? Do you want them to speak to your ability to work well in a team? Your leadership potential? Your willingness to contribute to class discussions? WHAT? If you don’t know, how are we supposed to know? If we have observed these behaviours, skills, etc. in action then it would make sense to ask us to speak about them on your behalf but if not…
WHEN You Ask
- If in person, make sure that it is a good time (like not right before class when your professor is madly trying to get the projector to work) and if it is through email then make sure you communicate professionally (appropriate subject line, capitalization, sentence structure, etc.).
- Indicate why you are asking this particular person for a reference or why you think this person would be a good reference for the purpose. What value will he or she be willing to add to your application? Professors like this. It demonstrates thinking.
- Include all relevant information in the request like the due date (big one!) and a description of the program/award/position (a link to a website with this information is also very useful).
AFTER You Ask
- No matter the response, be gracious.
- Make sure that you follow up with all additional information (contact information of where the letter should be sent for example).
- Don’t assume that you can use this person as a reference for the rest of your life. You need to ask each time you would like this person to be a reference for you.
On that last point, a couple of months ago I was surprised to get a phone message from a background check company on behalf of a student I taught SEVEN YEARS AGO. Thankfully I wasn’t in the office when the call came in so I had a chance to figure out who this person was. That doesn’t mean I was able to give a good reference. I really didn’t remember this person or know anything about the position he had applied for.
I hope I haven’t scared you. The purpose of this post was to provide you with some context so that you make sure you are proactive in building relationships with individuals who might be able to help you in this capacity. What a great idea for a future post!
Have you had a good/bad reference request experience you would be willing to share?
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