5 tips for academic references

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Just how important are your academic references for grad school admission?

I’ve written my share of academic references – never more so than the last couple of months, where one candidate requested a record of twelve (yes, that’s 12) separate letters – but I’ve never served on a university admissions committee. I’ve always been curious about their importance relative to other factors like grades, personal/research statement, publications and relevant experience. My curiosity was finally satisfied when I found myself sitting next to just such a person on a train (currently reviewing candidates for a competitive university program) and we got to talking.

The short answer is VERY IMPORTANT – and although I always knew that excellent references are key, I didn’t appreciate the full extent of their influence.

So, in the interests of supporting would-be grad students everywhere, here are some tips from the perspective of a referee:

1. Be strategic. Is it better to ask a more junior instructor from a small class you loved where you got an A-, versus a tenured, senior faculty member where you got the same grade in a large class you weren’t so enthusiastic about (and not sure the prof remembered anyone’s names)? Rest assured that the sessional might not remember individual students very well either, and the answer should depend on…

2. How will this person rank me relative to what comparison group? In my 10 years of writing reference letters, I have never been asked this question directly – yet this is the most crucial question you need to ask your referee. You are looking for someone who is going to rank you in the top tier, across all categories if possible. Let’s look at the previous example: Is it the junior prof’s first year of university teaching? If so, even a ranking in the top 1% of 20 students probably carries less weight than the seasoned, tenured prof’s ranking in the top 5% of 5000 students. Ask the question – if you don’t like the answer maybe it isn’t the right person.

3. Send your referee a summary of the personal accomplishments and key points you want to emphasize in your application. And can I add that writing clearly and concisely, without errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax should be a given. Trust me, if I disagree with you I will edit. If I agree I will amplify. I will also add my own content. Sending me only your CV and personal or research statement makes it harder to write the best letter I can for you.

4. Follow up and say thank you – whatever the outcome. This obvious courtesy is not always observed, and you might need me again when you decide to apply for your next degree.

5. Don’t give up! This isn’t really a tip about reference letters but I am adding it because grad school applications are a lot of work, and so discouraging when there is no offer. Keep applying and consider spreading your net a little wider next time.

Just please don’t ask me for all twelve letters at once?

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