Reference Letters FAQ for Students

If you are seeking reference letters as part of your application for scholarships, enrichment programs, graduate/professional schools and internships or jobs, the information below provides helpful guidance. As always, the University Career Center staff is available to help with any questions related to securing strong reference letters.

When should I start requesting reference letters?

  • Depending on your career goals, you may wish to build your reference letter file over time.  Cultivate genuine relationships with your intended letter writers by regularly attending faculty office hours or having meaningful conversations with those individuals you wish to ask. These interactions will give your potential writers a better sense of who you are beyond the classroom, office, or other structured settings.
  • It is best to ask professors, employers or other types of supervisors (i.e., volunteer, research, etc.) to write letters immediately at the end of a semester or experience when their interactions with you are fresh on their minds.

What should I do before I start reaching out to potential letter writers?

  • Talk to people in your intended field to understand what type of letters are needed to support your application. For example, a medical school admission committee may have very different expectations concerning both the content and the sources of reference letters compared to a K-12 school district superintendent or a study abroad selection committee.

What should I be thinking about when considering who to ask?

  • Reflect on the personal traits, abilities and experiences that you wish to be addressed with your intended audiences (graduate/professional schools, employers etc.) and select writers who collectively can highlight those relevant skills and personal characteristics.

Whom should I ask?

  • Request letters from those individuals who know you well!
  • While references from faculty members are ideal, many schools and organizations value non-academic references as well, especially if you have been out of school for several years.
  • The best references come from individuals with high regard for your work, know you well, understand your future plans, are familiar with the expectations in the field you are pursuing, and are good writers. Take the time to get to know people who may be able to help, such as:
    • Advisors for student organizations
    • Professors for whom you are a teaching assistant, grader or research assistant
    • Faculty advisors, graduate student instructors, your dean, or other administrators
    • Supervisors from jobs or sustained volunteer experiences where you have had significant responsibility.

Will it help my application if I reach out to people with name recognition?

  • Refrain from seeking letters from individuals in high profile roles unless you had an opportunity to work for these people directly. 
  • Many admissions and search committees do not look favorably upon "power letters" as the writers usually have limited first-hand knowledge of your work and your abilities. 
  • Approach a graduate student instructor (GSI) vs. a professor when it makes sense, as the GSI may know you better and thus will be able to write a more personalized reference.
  • You may also opt to ask the professor and GSI to co-author/co-sign a letter regarding your achievements in a course.

Should I ask family members to write reference letters?

  • No. It is never a good idea to provide letters written by family members.

How and when should I approach letter writers about their willingness to serve as my references?

  • It is always best to set up an appointment and make the request in person, if at all possible. If meeting in person is not feasible, a well-constructed email is always an option, as is talking with potential writers over the phone.
  • Make your requests early, as securing reference letters always takes much longer than expected.
  • Early requests may also prompt writers to pay more attention to your skills and accomplishments over the course of your relationship, enabling them to eventually write a more personalized letter.

How much time should I give my writers to produce their letters?

  • Give your writers at least three to four weeks.
  • Be cognizant of the timing of your request since exams, holidays, peak business seasons and their personal circumstances may cause greater delays in obtaining letters. For example, if you anticipate needing your letters by summer or early fall of a given year, be sure to approach professors and employers before they go on sabbaticals or leave for lengthy vacations.

If I am not getting responses but I am confident my intended references would agree to writing me a letter, can I list their names as references on my applications?

  • Don’t list any individual’s name as a reference without having received permission to do so.

What information is helpful to share with my writers?

  • Explain how you plan to use the reference letter based on your career goals and be sure to discuss the timeline, modalities and requirements for submission. 
  • For example, some schools or organizations may only accept references prepared on letterhead and carrying the author’s signature—even for online submissions—or certain application services or dossier management systems.

What is the most important thing I should ask of my references?

  • Ascertain if the writers believe they are able to write a positive letter.
  • Ask if they have any concerns about your candidacy as it relates to the direction you are pursuing, whether that be employment, graduate/professional school admission or other opportunity. This step is particularly important if you plan to waive your right to review the letter—see information below on, “Whether to Ask for a Confidential or Non-Confidential Letter.”

What considerations should I take into account when deciding to request confidential vs. non-confidential letters?

  • Under the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), you have the right to access your reference letters unless you choose to waive that right at the point you formally request a reference letter from an individual. You are encouraged to speak with your letter writers, admissions officers and individuals working in your chosen field to seek advice as to which type of letters—confidential or non-confidential—will be most useful or appropriate.
  • Waiving your right to access letters may make your writers more comfortable in offering their candid opinions. Thus, confidential letters are typically preferred by the writers and intended recipients alike (graduate and professional schools, employers, etc.) because of their inherent candor.
  • It is ultimately your decision to request non-confidential letters if you wish to review them and make informed decisions regarding their use in support of your applications. 
  • Note, however, that letters typically have clear notations as to whether they are confidential or non-confidential for the convenience of the writers and intended recipients.
  • Given the permanence of your decision to request a confidential vs. non-confidential letter, it is important that you openly and honestly discuss with your writers their willingness to provide a positive endorsement on your behalf.  It is always helpful to discuss:
    • the intended purpose of the letter;
    • the writer’s ability and willingness to speak positively on your behalf; and
    • your permission, if applicable, to include personal information or special circumstances in the reference letter.

What information is useful to give my letter writers prior to writing their letters?

  • Give writers materials that may assist them in composing strong evaluations.
  • Common materials include: resumes; college transcripts; copies of class papers if applicable; and a statement of purpose regarding your career goals. You may also provide application essays for graduate or professional school, cover letters and job descriptions as applicable. Some writers may welcome a snapshot to help jog their memories if your interactions date awhile back and you are unable to meet them in person.

I recognize that people are busy; so, is it possible to write my own letter and just ask my reference for a signature?

  • Under no circumstances you should compose a letter and simply have your reference sign it, even if it was their idea to handle your reference in this manner. This approach is not only unethical but often transparent to admissions committees and prospective employers.

Can I make suggestions of information to include in the letter?

  • Absolutely! Ask the writer if you want something in particular highlighted in your letter. It will be the writer’s choice whether or not to include that information, but many letter writers appreciate such suggestions.
  • This approach proves particularly helpful if you are trying to create a composite picture of the skill set, personal traits and characteristics you possess. You could specifically ask one letter writer to focus on certain aspects of your profile while other writers focus on some other important information.

How many letters should I submit?

  • Read instructions carefully when requesting (and eventually submitting) the required number of letters in support of your applications. Most programs require two to four reference letters although they may accept more. Each additional letter should provide new information about you.
  • Application instructions often specify who should write letters and, occasionally, what topics to address. If you have more letters than the required minimum, you can consider submitting an extra letter as long as you do not exceed the maximum number of accepted letters.

What should I do if a medical school asks for a pre-medical committee letter?

  • Due to the large size of the pre-health student body, University of Michigan does not have a pre-medical/pre-health committee.  Thus, the responsibility of soliciting and collecting letters of reference stays exclusively with you.  You do not need a letter from a pre-health advisor to apply.  

Do I need to do anything else after I ask for reference letters?

  • Check in and follow up!  Check periodically with each of your writers about the status of your letters to ensure they have completed the task and
  • Check with admissions offices and prospective employers to ensure your materials have been received and that your applications are complete.
  • Your reference letter writers have invested a great deal of time in crafting their evaluations. Be sure to thank them after the letter is written and submitted, and keep them apprised of the progress of your application and ultimate success. They will be happy to hear from you! 


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