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4 Tips for Getting a Good Reference Letter

1. Choose wisely

This is the part that students find most stressful – choosing the right professor to write the letter. Asking for a reference can feel rather intimidating, but it’s important to remember that most professors have a vested interest in their students’ success and are happy to assist in many ways. That being said, it’s important to approach the right professor. The instructor’s reputation can be beneficial, particularly if they’re well-respected or a leader in their field, but don’t base your decision on prestige alone. Make sure to choose a professor who knows you well – an ideal candidate for a reference letter would be a professor or instructor that you had for several classes over the course of your studies and with whom you have worked recently. It should go without saying that you choose a professor who has seen your best work and who gave you good marks and feedback. But it’s also important to consider the application requirements. If you’re applying for a Masters in Engineering, it may not be very helpful to choose your Poli-Sci professor from second year, even if you did get straight As in her class. Or if you’re applying for a job on a marketing team, it’s a good idea to ask a professor who can speak to your abilities in a group or on collaborative work.

2. Prepare well

Most professors understand that writing recommendations is part of the job, and they’re happy to help. In fact, many professors will be flattered by your request. But that doesn’t mean that you can just pop by and ask for a letter two days before the application is due. First, contact your professor either in his office hours or via email and ask, politely, whether he is willing to write a letter of recommendation. If you receive a positive response, gather all the information the professor will need to write a reference – your transcripts, CV, application instructions, and all the relevant documents – and visit his office hours with the materials. Make sure to include contact information so that the professor can get in touch with questions or requests. If you’re submitting the documents electronically, make sure that they’re clearly labeled and saved in a format that can be opened in many programs, and find out whether the professor will submit the letter or whether you need to collect it once it’s finished.

3. Timing is Everything

Professors are normally happy to help a student they feel have the skills and drive to succeed, especially when that student has performed well in class and demonstrates passion for the subject. But professors are also busy, and a good letter of reference doesn’t just magically appear overnight. Approach your chosen professor early – weeks (or months if possible) before the application is due. Make sure to submit all the necessary paperwork and information to the professor in a timely fashion, and complete as much of the application as possible to save your professor time and effort. If your application includes a personal statement or project plan, have a draft ready and include it with the information you provide to the professor so that she has context for your application. And follow up on your request – if the application is due next week and you haven’t heard from the professor, it’s appropriate to send a friendly and polite email to check on the letter’s progress. But don’t badger your professor – yours may not be the only letter they are writing.

4. Mind your Manners

Remember that your professor is doing you a favor. Be polite when asking for a recommendation, be courteous and organized when providing the necessary documents, and remember to follow up a recommendation, whether your application is successful or not, with a kind thank you note. And, if your application is successful, be sure to contact the professor(s) who wrote letters of recommendation