Writing a letter of reference

In the course of their studies, students are often required to submit letters of reference for job applications. The following suggestions are intended to help in the process:
Ask people who have a good knowledge of your work. Do not ask people because they are famous or important if they do not actually know you very well. That is simply namedropping. Do not ask people who barely know you, and who do not know your work. They are likely to indicate this, in some way, in the letter, and it will only reflect badly on yourself. The credibility and value of your letter is based on knowledgeable comments about your work, not the relative fame of the referee.

Provide the person concerned with plenty of advance notice. Academics are busy people, and you cannot expect them to drop everything they are doing because you need a letter within the next few days. Occasionally, you may need to ask such a last-minute favour, but if you abuse this privilege you are likely to be disappointed.

Often, you are likely to remember the person whose reference you are seeking – generally someone who has taught you – much better than they remember you. Very few academics keep files on former students. They see many, many students in the course of their work.

When you submit a request for a letter of reference, it may be useful to attach a photograph, so as to remind the person what you look like. This lessens the chances that you will be confused with someone else, which may not be in your best interest.

Prepare a draft letter, and submit it with your request. Depending upon how well you know the referee, you may wish first to offer to prepare a draft before submitting it. If you find this awkward, you might simply include the information that would be included in the draft within your letter requesting the reference. That leaves the referee with the option of simply cutting and pasting the information.

I have attached a draft to indicate what this might look like: http://www.writeexpress.com/reference-letter.html. This is not the place for you to talk about your personal qualities, or to refer to things about which the referee has no personal knowledge. What you need to do is provide the referee with factual information describing your relationship: when it began, for how long, what it consisted of, etc. If nothing else, this helps make sure that the referee will not forget or overlook something important.

Do not ask for general letters of reference that are not addressed to anyone in particular. I personally do not do such letters.

It is always preferable that the letter be sent directly to the person for whom it is destined, rather than back to you so that it can be included in the application. Sometimes this is not an option, of course, and you need to study the terms and conditions for which the letter is being prepared.

Provide the referee with all relevant information including, where possible, a copy of the announcement of the job or fellowship for which you are applying and an up-to-date c.v.

As a general rule, make the process as simple as possible for the referee. Many academics prepare a large volume of letters every month. They rarely have secretarial help. The easier you make the task, the more likely they are to prepare the letter promptly (and meet the deadline).

I try to make it a practice to write to the student indicating that a letter has been sent. But if you have no such confirmation, it is not inappropriate to send a reminder to the referee shortly before the deadline.

There are a variety of websites with suggestions on the matter. They tend to be oriented towards business letters rather than an academic context. Nevertheless, they may provide helpful information:http://www.jobweb.com/Resources/Library/Correspondence_for_the_Job/

Tips_for_Writing_a_221_01.htm; http://www.businessballs.com/referencesletterssamples.htm; http://www.writeexpress.com/reference-letter.html .