How to choose a letter writer
Get letters from people you know well! Form letters and brief letters authored by people who know you superficially can be of very limited use to the reader and lend little support to your application.
If you are unsure whether to approach a graduate student instructor (GSI) vs. a professor, remember that while a professor's name may be more impressive, the GSI may know you better and be able to write a more personalized reference. The writer should know you well enough to provide a solid and tailored evaluation. Another option: ask both the professor and the GSI to co-author/co-sign a letter regarding your achievements in a course.
Do not compose a letter and have the person providing the reference sign it, even if it was their idea to handle your reference in such a manner. This approach is not only unethical but often transparent to an admissions committee or prospective employer.
How to obtain a strong letter
Ask writers beforehand if they feel comfortable and prepared to write a positive reference. Also, ask if they have any concerns about your candidacy as it relates to whatever you are pursuing — employment or graduate/professional school admission. This step is particularly important if you plan to waive your right to see the letter.
If you are hoping to ask one of the teaching faculty at the University, go to their office hours on a regular basis. These interactions will give them some knowledge of you beyond the classroom experience, your papers, and performance on exams.
Make an effort to get to know the people from whom you wish to obtain letters. As your class or internship progresses, explore their willingness to write you a reference letter. Early notice may prompt your writers to pay more attention to you, your skills and accomplishments, enabling them to write a more detailed and personalized letter.
Provide the writers with whatever materials may assist them in composing a strong evaluation. Common materials shared with reference letter writers include: a resume; college transcripts; copies of class papers, if applicable; a statement of intent regarding your career goals (i.e., application essay for graduate or professional school, or a cover letter and job description(s) of position(s) pursued). Some writers even welcome a snapshot to help jog their memories if your interactions date back a while.
Depending on the specific circumstances, you may wish to provide your letter writers with stamped and addressed envelopes to use when returning the letters to the appropriate party.
If there is something in particular you want highlighted in your letter, don't be afraid to tell the writer. It is still the writer’s choice as to whether or not to include that information, but many letter writers appreciate such suggestions. This approach can prove 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 your letter writers to focus on certain aspects of your profile while other writers will focus on some other important information.
Talk to people in the field that you wish to enter to see what they look for in letters. For example, a medical school admission committee may have very different expectations concerning both the content and the sources of letters of reference than a K-12 district superintendent.
How much time to allow
You should allow the letter writer at least three to four weeks to write a letter of reference. People are busy and may be under tight time constraints. You will also want to be cognizant of the timing of your request since exams, holidays, and peak business seasons may cause greater delays in obtaining your letter. 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.
In general, it is often a good idea to ask professors or employers to write reference letters at the end of a term or an internship, when their interactions with you are still fresh on their minds.
Whether to ask for confidential or non-confidential letters
It is your right to access any reference letter written about you unless you waive that right. Waiving the right often makes letter writers more comfortable in voicing their opinions. Thus, confidential letters tend to be more commonly requested by graduate and professional school admission committees and prospective employers.
However, given the permanent nature of the decision concerning a confidential letter, it is important that you openly and honestly discuss with your writer their willingness to provide a positive endorsement on your behalf. For more information, please read about choosing Confidential vs. Non-confidential Letters.
Check, check, and re-check
It is your responsibility to keep track of your letters at each stage of the process:
- Check periodically with each of your writers about the status of your letters to see if they have completed the task;
- Check that each letter has indeed been received by The University Career Center's Reference Letter Service. Review online the names of the writers who submitted letters in your file, along with the dates and locations where letters were sent, if applicable.
- Finally, check with admissions offices and prospective employers to ensure your materials were received and your application is complete.
The authors of your reference letters invest a great deal of time in crafting their evaluations. Be sure to thank them after they have written your letters and keep them posted on the progress of your application and ultimate success.