Choosing your referees
Your referees should ideally be people at a higher authority (not absolutely required) or more senior than you, who know you at a more personal level and are familiar with your work and interests. Such as, professors that you took multiple courses with, a project advisor or supervisor, your supervisor(s) at work, etc. Often, universities will specify the kind of referees they need in the application guidelines. Strictly follow those.
Receiving letters of recommendation (LoRs) from the people such as the Head of the Department (in college), Director or Dean, is not necessary. Such a recommendation will largely be meaningless if your referee does not know you well. Choose those who know you, can speak about you without hesitation, and can provide a strong recommendation.
Always keep a backup referee, that is, if you need 3 recommendations, ask 4 or 5 people in case of any unforeseen circumstances with your preferred referees.
Scroll down for a bunch of resources, including good samples.
Approaching a potential referee
Email or meet your potential referee in person well before beginning your applications.
You must always be polite and ask them about their willingness or comfort with writing a strong recommendation. Given their busy schedules and the loads of emails they receive, you might not receive a response to your email (or request to meet). It is okay to follow up with a reminder but allow a few days, preferably a week before your reminder.
If they agree, ideally, the LoR should be written by the referee and you should not be involved directly. When contacting your referee, describe your intentions, career interests and academic or professional achievements, especially when they were involved in your project/work. This is to give them information to write a strong letter and grease your tracks. Attach your latest CV, and inform them about the programs and universities you intend to apply to. A good way to end is by asking if they need any more information that would help them complete the recommendation.
You may be asked to provide a first draft which your referee will edit and then approve. This is quite common and can be intimidating. Use the resources provided at the end of this document to help you draft one.
Sometimes the admissions committee might contact your referee via phone or email during the selection process for clarifications. This is exactly why you must choose carefully.
Letter of Recommendation structure (one of many):
Part 1: How long and in what capacity have you known the candidate?
Mention when the referee first met the applicant – both year and in what capacity (as the applicant’s teacher, supervisor, manager, etc.). The professional relationship between the referee and the applicant must be clear. This has to be very straightforward and give the reviewer an idea of how well the referee knows the applicant.
Part 2: What is your opinion of the candidate’s motivation and suitability for a career in the specific field of interest?
Describe, with examples, how the applicant has demonstrated their abilities and skills relevant to the field. Briefly talk about how these skills can be enhanced through higher education for a future career.
Part 3: How does the applicant stand out from others (strengths), and what personal or professional characteristics could the applicant improve (weaknesses)? – for an academic/technical referee, you may include details of how the applicant performed/mastered the concerned subject/project and in what ways (include an example).
The referee may mention 2-3 strengths – and these would be best described by an example or two. Examples demonstrate that the referee knows the applicant at a more personal level, which helps the admissions committee understand the applicant’s potential. A great way to hammer these strengths is by comparing the applicant’s performance relative to peers or other well-qualified individuals.
The weaknesses bit is often tricky and must be written in a way that does not point towards aspects that are actually negative. This can be omitted.
Part 4: Please give an example or instance of how the applicant interacts with other people (performance and communication while in a team, interactions with peers, subordinates and supervisors, etc.) i.e., interpersonal skills
This should demonstrate that the applicant has strong spoken and written communication skills. Again, examples will strengthen the referee’s comments.
Part 5: Other relevant details.
These can be any other information that does not relate to the above details.
- Do not use samples (especially do not plagiarize samples) that are available online, because it will unlikely be a strong letter, and may raise a red flag when the admissions committee reads them. They will take it as a sign of being insincere, and they might even notify other universities which will seriously affect your chances of getting into the program.
- Bug your referees with urgent requests. Send them a reminder at least two weeks before the final deadline.
- Do not get disappointed or panic if your potential referee does not respond to your email right away. Send a gentle reminder after about a week. Try a third time if you do not get any response.
- Do not assume anything regarding the admission requirements. Always confirm any doubts with the admissions department. For instance, if the application needs at least 2 academic referees but you can only provide 1 academic referee, check with admissions if any alternatives (replacing 1 of the 2 academic referees with a professional referee) are acceptable (with a description of your circumstances for not being able to fulfil the requirements).
- Do not provide fake recommendations.
Please see the following links that will help you understand the qualities of a good recommendation.
- A detailed ‘Manual’
- Are recommendations more important than your GPA or GRE?
- Stanford MBA’s guidelines and related information that references should provide
- Other links: