Tips for Undergraduates Seeking Letters of Reference

Who to ask: It is best to seek a letter of reference from someone who knows you and your work well. Instructors who have gotten to know your work in upper division classes, especially small seminars, will be best able to write concretely and convincingly about your abilities. Of course, it is best to seek a reference from a teacher for whom you have done strong work. Ask your instructor if they can write you a positive letter. If they can not, it is best to ask someone else.

Get in touch early: It is a good idea to speak directly to a potential recommender during their office hours. This is an opportunity for you to explain your plans for graduate study. Recommenders can also provide guidance on the process of pursuing further education. An in-person conversation ensures that you understand your recommender’s expectations regarding deadlines and supporting materials they may wish to see before writing the letter. Generally, you should give a recommender at least two weeks notice to write a letter.

Confidential versus open letters: Letters of reference are usually confidential, meaning that only the program reviewing your application will read them. Some programs (and some recommenders) ask you to sign a waiver, declining your right to review the letter. Confidential letters carry more weight than open letters because recommenders can express themselves more freely. It is generally in your interest to waive your access to the letter. A recommender should not agree to write a letter if he or she does not believe it will be a positive one.

What you’ll need: When you ask for a letter, it is important to have gathered all your information including:

  • deadlines for receipt of letters: Ideally, you should provide your recommender with one consolidated list of your applications and their deadlines; this makes it easier to track and ensures letters are submitted on time. It’s also a good idea to send reminders to your recommenders a couple of days before the final due date.
  • information about the program: Make clear what kind of program(s) you plan to apply for; a letter recommending a student for law school would look different from a letter recommending a student for graduate study in History.
  • forms from the program: Some graduate programs have specific forms they want recommenders to use. Make sure you have these ready, and have filled out whatever information they ask of you.
  • submission information: Most programs will send an email to prompt recommenders to submit letters on line once you’ve filled out the application. If the program requires physical submission, the university expects you to provide stamped, addressed envelopes.
  • statement of purpose: Most programs require such a document, and providing it to your recommenders can help them understand your plans, and craft a letter that reinforces your self-presentation.
  • additional information: Reminding letter writers of what courses you took with them, providing a copy of your transcript, and examples of your writing from class with your recommender can be helpful, especially if there is a long gap between your having taken the course, and asking for a recommendation. If you have received honors in the major, or other recognition of your work, you should let your recommenders know that too.

Stay in Touch: Keep your recommenders informed of your plans. It is always good to hear the outcome of applications!

For the future: If you are not planning to apply for graduate study in the near future, but think you might do so down the line, it might be a good idea to look into a letter service like Interfolio. For more information, visit the Career Center website.