How to ask for a reference letter

Making The (Reference Letter) Ask

Making The (Reference Letter) Ask
Avatar photo

Starting to consider the next step in your academic journey? 

Does it involve an internship, graduate program or maybe even moving into the workforce? 

As you do, you may want to take some time to ensure all of the elements for your application are in order. 



One of the most-overlooked is the reference letter—often the difference between a successful application and one deemed incomplete.

For those reviewing you as an applicant, the reference letter is a great insight into you as a person, student and potential employee/intern or member of a graduate program. 


Do you have 3-5 references ready before you hit submit? 

Think of the Professors and Advisors who are most-familiar with your work and potential.  After you have developed your list, consider these tips before make “the ask”:




Ask early

Make sure you provide the writer with a sufficient amount of time to draft the letter. 

Nothing is worse than agreeing to write a reference letter and finding out that you only have a day or two to complete it. 

Never make your reference feel they must stress a deadline…give them plenty of time to give you the glowing letter you deserve.  


Provide a CURRENT resume

This will be invaluable to your reference as they prepare your letter. 

It will allow them to address specific details about your background or experience which will provide continuity to your application. 

Take the time to ensure it is updated and lists, in detail, important information about you.   


With their approval…provide some “highlights” that you might want them to address. 

This might seem like cheating, but by giving a short list of bullet points, your reference letter will be more likely to meet the needs you have as an applicant. 

Again, make sure you ask first if such a list would be helpful.  Include in this the places that you intend to use the letter. 

This will help the writer avoid the dreaded “To Whom It May Concern” line.  

{adinserter InPost}


Send a reminder message

If you are requesting a letter for a specific application, it is important for you to remind your reference of due dates. 

Remember—the deadline is yours and not theirs

Make sure you give them an appropriate amount of time to complete your letter.  


Ask for a copy BEFORE it is submitted

I encourage this for a variety of reasons. 

First, even good, well-intentioned people can make mistakes. 

The other reason this is important might be a tad discouraging…but, sometimes the letter you are given is poor. 

I think you should have every right to accept the letter and NOT submit it in your application. 

If it doesn’t paint you in the correct light or doesn’t “wow” a potential reviewer, don’t force it.   

{adinserter InPost}



Ask someone who doesn’t know you

This might seem obvious, but just because you took a class with a professor doesn’t necessarily make them a good reference. 

Try to choose people who truly know you and have a good impression. 

Want to know if they do? 

Read that first draft!   


Correct anything but content

Want to REALLY turn off your reference…send them corrections on your draft letter about anything other than content. 

Remember, you are the one making the “ask” and, as such, should be humble. 

If their writing isn’t stellar or their reference isn’t as glowing as you would hope, do not, under any circumstances, ask them to re-write!   


Forget to thank them

Thanks them for taking the time to provide you a reference. 

Want to know how? 

Check out next week’s article on the Art of Appreciation.

Avatar photo

Casey J. Cornelius, Founder of ForCollegeForLife, is a writer and speaker who is passionate about student success. He has spent more than a decade as a faculty member, advisor, administrator and mentor. Feel free to connect on his Facebook page, ForCollegeForLife, or on Twitter @4college4life. His work can be found weekly on UndergradSuccess and he serves as an educational expert and content contributor to GenYize.

More in professional

10 Things That Aren’t On Your Resume (But Should Be)

YouTernMay 29, 2024

The Shocking Truth about References: “How” and “Why”

Scott KeenanMay 28, 2024

Does Your Resume Say What You DID? Or Can DO?

YouTernMay 24, 2024

How To Job Search Like A Pro – With No Work Experience

Career GeekMay 21, 2024

10 Things That Must Be Said in Every Job Interview

YouTernMay 20, 2024

LinkedIn Power Users for a More Powerful Job Search

Joshua WaldmanMay 18, 2024