The I’m-Applying-To-Grad-School Saga Part I: How To Get A Reference Letter

So you’ve decided that you’re going to apply for grad school, as I have done. You’ve looked through the programs offered by a number of universities, and have narrowed down your choice according to the area of research that you’re interested in, and where you can realistically picture yourself living for the next few years. Like me, you are probably the proprietor of a short but lively list of interesting research ideas, and have already looked into them a little on your own time. You’ve probably also sought advice from one or two of your professors, and maybe from the department you’re hoping to be admitted by.

The next step: getting reference letters. Yikes.

My personal experience getting reference letters began several weeks ago. After one of the UpbeaT meetings, I mentioned to Fariya that I was on my way to Sidney Smith in an attempt to procure one letter for my Masters applications. Neither of us having asked a prof for a reference before, we both acknowledged that it seemed like a bit of a feat- particularly at U of T, where class sizes can be immense and it sometimes feels near impossible to get to know a prof, let alone find the time to meet them in their office hours. 

Having now just gone through the process of asking for reference letters myself, I’ve listed below some of the points I found most helpful in getting the deed done. 

1) Pick your prof carefully. It sounds obvious, but it makes all the difference. Don’t ask the teachers who can never remember your name. Ask profs who have appreciated the effort you put into your classes, the enthusiasm with which you approach your work, and the energy you invest in participation and projects. It’s useful to ask professors who taught you in smaller classes, particularly upper level courses, as you will have had more opportunity in these classes to speak up, get to know the prof, and make yourself heard.

2) Get the letter as soon as you can. Professors deal with hundreds of undergraduate students. They also oversee graduate and postgraduate work. Even if they are only teaching one or two undergrad courses, chances are that if you do not ask them soon after finishing the course, their attention will be taken up by other endeavours, and they may not remember you as clearly as you would have hoped. 

3) Do some background research. You will most likely end up talking to your prof about the program you are applying to, and you need to be able to discuss your choice intelligently. You want to show you’ve put some thought into the project, that you know what you’re doing, and that you’re not going to change your mind about your future goals next week, thereby wasting the time they will have spent in writing you your letter.

4) Ask a prof who works in the area of research you’re interested in. This can help because it shows you have some experience in, and probably some aptitude for, the area you want to pursue. Asking a prof who specializes in your area of interest will also inadvertently result in a (or multiple) discussions with your prof about the material that interests you both, which in the end will only make your application stronger.

5) Let your prof know you’re coming. If you can, email your prof beforehand and let them know why you’re visiting their office. This will give them some time to consider your request, and will also make the whole thing a little easier on you as you won’t be in suspense as you ask, but will already have an idea as to how they will respond to your request.

6) Practice. Although it might seem like a very easy thing to do, once you get in their office and are speaking with your prof, you will have to put the question into words. Unlike how I asked for my letters (i.e. “Oh, and one last thing, Iwaswonderingifyoumightbeabletowritemeareferenceletter?”) you should probably think about how you want to word this question. It can be an awkward thing to have to ask for! Particularly if you’re a bumbler at all, like me.
– Mary

1 comment on “The I’m-Applying-To-Grad-School Saga Part I: How To Get A Reference Letter

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  1. Hey,

    This is a great post.
    Reference letters are kind of a scary thing to ask for, and now-a-days, every employer wants one too. I’ll need one for law school (yep, dreaming big).

    Any advice on how to ask a Prof for a letter regarding employment? On one hand, you want mutilple letters catering to the job skills needed for the employment. On the other hand, you know how busy your Profs are, and you don’t want to get them mad….

    Dont know what to do! :s

    p.s. thanks for the “ping-back” 🙂