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What we thought might also be helpful is a comprehensive guide to the inevitable, and often trying task of getting a professor to write a reference letter on your behalf.
– GENERAL OBSERVATIONS –
1. For better or for worse, the ritual of obtaining references is an inescapable part of the education process. Not only is it inescapable, it is a crucial part of almost every kind of application these days — from applications to the program itself, for a summer job, for articles, for a clerkship, for an internship, for a scholarship, for an exchange, for graduate studies, for a fellowship, for a teaching position, and so on.
2. Many students have only a vague idea about how to select potential referees, how to go about soliciting referees, and how to make the letter-writing process as easy as possible for these referees.
3. The process can be divided into four steps: (1) determining whether a reference is required, and if so, determining what kind of reference is needed; (2) determining who to approach for a reference, and why; (3) making the approach; (4) following up. This fourth step is just as important as the first three and, sadly, it is the most oft-forgotten. Yet, more than anything else, it raises the question: “exactly what is a letter of reference?” — a question with which this memo begins.
I. WHAT IS A “LETTER OF REFERENCE”?
4. In the comments that follow the expression “letter of reference” is used, even though these comments are just as apposite for any type of reference — personal interview, telephone conversation, completion of a form, and so on.
5. From the perspective of the person seeking the reference, a letter of reference can be seen in multiple ways: as a barrier to an objective (e.g. a job, admission to an educational institution, the award of a bursary or scholarship, permission to undertake an exchange, an internship, or some other endeavour); as an opportunity for self-gratification (especially if one has a good academic record and seeks confirmation of one’s status); as the occasion to learn of one’s weaknesses as well as one’s strengths; as an opportunity to interact on a more personal basis with the referee (who will often be a professor); and so on.
6. From the perspective of the person writing the reference, the letter can also be seen in multiple ways: as a burden that attaches to the job (e.g. of employer, of supervisor, of professor, and so on); as an opportunity to exert power and domination over the person seeking the reference (especially in situations of manifest power imbalance); as an occasion to assist someone whose dossier is such that without such assistance prospects for a successful application are dim; as an opportunity to interact on a more personal basis with the person requesting the reference (who will often be a student); and so on.
7. In the university context (and especially in the Faculty of Law) most professors take the writing of letters of reference very seriously. Indeed, most professors consider the task of reference writing to be a continuation of their pedagogical role — subject to the same ethical constraints and same aspirations as all other modes and sites of teaching.
8. Even when the reference requires nothing more than filling out a form, or the letter to be provided is pro forma, most professors see the occasion as one that demands thought, reflection and the investment of emotional energy. For them, there is no such thing as a “whipped off” letter of reference.
9. All this is to signal that a letter of reference, and the circumstances surrounding the request for a reference and its provision, says as much about its author as it does about its subject.
10. Before engaging in the relationship presupposed by a letter of reference, you should reflect upon these features of the process.
II. DETERMINING IF A REFERENCE IS REQUIRED
11. A first step is to determine if a reference is required, and if so, what kind of reference is needed. Not all institutions have the same practices.
12. Here are some of the variables:
- How many references or referees are needed?
- From whom are the references required? e.g. a teacher, an employer, an employee or co-worker, etc.?
- What are the referees being asked to comment on? e.g. character, intellect, capacities for certain kinds of work?
- Are you to provide names of referees (who may or may not be contacted) or to ask the referees to provide references ex ante?
- Is the reference to be written or oral?
- Does the reference comprise a form to be completed or is it to be in the form of a narrative letter, or both?
- How is the reference to be sent? e.g. by e-mail, letter, FAX?
- Is the reference to be sent directly, or placed in a sealed envelope signed on the flap and remitted to you?
- Does the reference contain a waiver of your right to see it? (note that in principle, where a candidate does not waive the right to see the letter, the letter is given much less weight in the process since it is assumed that the writer will be writing defensively)
- What is the language in which the reference must be given?
- How many copies of the reference are to be sent?
- When is the deadline, if any, for the reference letter to be received by the institution?
13. All this information is typically provided explicitly or implicitly on the form or application notice. For example, a clue as to what information is required may be seen in the check-list chart of abilities or the notice as to what the institution is looking for.
If you cannot find it in written documentation, check the organization’s web-site, or read other documents in which the institution talks about itself, or ask others who have previously applied, or try to deduce this information from forms produced by similar institutions elsewhere.
14. You should be prepared to provide all this information in point-form for anyone who you ask to be a referee.
III. DETERMINING WHO TO APPROACH FOR A REFERENCE
15. It is important that you obtain the prior agreement of your referees to act in this capacity. Nothing is more likely to damage your application than for a referee to receive a telephone call out of the blue, inquiring about you and your candidacy.
First, unless the referee knows you well, he or she is unlikely to be prepared to answer, and will therefore give just the vaguest of answers. Second, it will be obvious to the person making the call that you have not done your homework in obtaining prior consent — this hardly argues well for that person’s evaluation of whether or not you exercise good judgement.
16. It may be that you are in an interview process and are asked for the name of a referee in a context where you did not anticipate such a request at that time. Or you may have given the names of referees who could speak to certain aspects of your file, and are asked on the spot for the name of another referee who could comment on another aspect of your file.
In this case, you may have to give a name prior to seeking permission. If this occurs, you should to two things.
17. First, you must be honest with the person interviewing you. This means acknowledging that you haven’t previously obtained the agreement of that referee. You should, for example, say something like: “I haven’t had a chance to tell Professor X that I have applied for this (thing) yet, but I’m sure she/he won’t mind speaking to you about me. I will confirm her/his consent immediately and tell her/him that you might be calling.”
18. Second, you should immediately contact the person whose name you gave in something like the following terms.
January 30, 2015
Dear Professor XXX,
I’m write to apologize and to ask for your indulgence. I had to offer your name as a reference for my applications for firms in YYY. I realize that usually you should ask the person before hand, but I was in a bit of a crunch since this was only a first interview, and I was caught off-guard.
I don’t really know many other profs. here, and I know I don’t even know you very well, but I figured I needed someone from the Faculty and yours was the first name I thought of.
So if this terribly upsets you I can withdraw your name and I apologize. On the other hand, if you would be willing to be a referee I will send you my c.v. and background information right away.
19. In general, however, you will have an opportunity to obtain the prior permission of the people who you wish to ask for references. How should you go about choosing appropriate referees?
20. Many students think that they should solicit letters of reference from professors who taught courses in which they obtained their highest grades. This is not necessarily a wise policy — for two reasons.
21. On the one hand, it may be that the professor in question taught a large class in a lecture format that was examined by sit-down final examination. What exactly can this professor say other than that you were in the class and that you obtained a particular grade? The only new information possible is an explanation of what that grade means for that professor, an extra bit of information that hardly justifies writing a whole letter of reference, and that does not really add to the strength of your file..
22. On the other hand, it may be that the professor who taught the course (or seminar) in which you excelled does know you well, but does not think particularly highly of you. Contrary to the belief of some students, examination scripts are anonymous. Professors are frequently surprised both by the poor performance of students who they thought would do well, and the excellent performance of students who were never in class or always unprepared.
Moreover, even in essay courses and in Term Essay courses, the evaluation of the essay is independent of the evaluation of the student. Many professors have had the experience of having to assign a low grade to a student essay when they genuinely like the student, or conversely of having to assign an excellent grade to a student who has been unpleasant and disruptive in class or who has been a disengaged or unenthusiastic essay writer. You should not automatically assume that your having obtained a good grade in a course or term essay is a guarantee that you will receive an equally favourable reference.
23. What then are the factors that you go into the choice of a referee? The first and most important criterion is to select referees who can speak to the matters about which the person for whom the reference is being writing wishes to obtain information.
For example, if you are applying for a clerkship and the advertisement emphasizes research and writing skills, a reference from a professor for whom you have written a term essay, or an essay in course, or for whom you have worked as a research assistant, is likely to be more helpful than a reference from a professor who has taught you two large classes examined exclusively by sit-down exams.
24. The second issue is to ensure that you do not cumulate referees who will say exactly the same things because they are working with exactly the same information set.
For example, if you are applying to a graduate program and wish to specialize in policy development and institutional design, it is less productive to have two professors who have taught you in a field of administrative law, even if they both have evaluated your written work through mid-term assignments. Better to get a reference from one of them, and a reference from another professor for whom you may have been a summer research assistant, or who was a coach of a moot team that you participated in, who can speak to your ability to work cooperatively with others, to analyze a problem and to formulate arguments.
In other words, make a checklist of all the things that an application form suggests will be important in evaluating the application, and then attempt to select your referees so that they will, among themselves, be able to speak to each of the desired qualities and capacities. Make sure, when you approach your referees (see below), that you explain this to them so that all the desired points are covered off.
25. This inevitably raises the question as to what to do if you do not really know any professor well — or more to the point, if no professor really knows you well. This is a surprisingly common occurrence. Three points merit notice.
To begin, from the moment you enter the Faculty you should be aware that sooner or later, you are most likely going to have to ask for a letter of reference. This means that you should be thinking relatively early in your career of establishing some kind of relationship with at least one or two professors. This does not mean being obsequious or sucking up. Students are often surprised to learn how effectively professors can detect insincere sucking-up. This is true even though they will be polite to such students and even in public will not reveal that they know what is going on. More than this, you can be sure that, in writing the reference, the professor will note and comment unfavourably on this aspect of the student’s character.
Trying to build a rapport does, however, mean that if, for example, you are in a seminar course or are writing a Term Essay, you must take advantage of that opportunity to establish something more than a pro forma relationship with the professor. Or if you are a member of the Law Journal, you should try to get to know the adviser. Or if you are interested in law and poverty work, or community activism, you should try to get to know professors working in that field, or who supervise clinics or internships.
26. Another point is this. If you should happen to need a reference from a professor and there is simply no-one on the faculty with whom you have established a personal relationship, you must adopt a fall-back position. Among the horde of unknowns, who should you approach?
An initial criterion, obviously, is that you should approach a professor who has at least taught you.
In addition, it would be helpful if that professor were someone for whom you had submitted some type of work (an in-term essay, a memo, a class presentation) other than a regular anonymously-graded sit-down examination. This will ensure that you can give the professor a written record of your work to refer to.
Third, try to find a professor who teaches and writes in the fields that relate to your job, or graduate school application. This will enable you to pass on your statement of interests, or your proposed graduate project, and after having done so, make an appointment to have a conversation with that professor about your project. Doing this will also have a collateral benefit. It is very helpful to have the advice of people in the field that interests the student. Talking to an expert who’s been around that social/academic sphere for longer is an excellent idea.
27. These two points are part of a more general idea. Asking for a reference, and working to be able to put together a meaningful request to a professor is part of what getting a meaningful education is about. This in turn means personal engagement and a genuine commitment. If you do not pursue the goal of establishing a meaningful academic relationship with a professor for the right reasons, then it is unlikely that a rich and sincere letter of reference will be produced.
28. Except if you are seeking a reference for a very precise purpose where only a law professor could provide the needed information or commentary, you should attempt to get referees from different post-secondary institutions you have attended (if you have attended more than one), representing different fields, with different methodological approaches, who know you in several dimensions, and who (collectively) can present a relatively comprehensive picture of who you are.
As noted, if all your referees are from a program, attempt to obtain references from professors who will offer a variety of perspectives: teaching and writing in different fields; teaching and writing using different methodological approaches; and teaching and writing from different theoretical perspectives.
29. If (given all the above) you are in a position of having a luxury of choice about which referees to ask, you may wish to consider the following factors in selecting the referees you actually approach: (1) what is the academic status, reputation and standing of your referees; (2) will they will take the time to write a meaningful reference; (3) how well they know you; (4) do they have any special credibility (or lack of credibility) with the particular institution to which you are applying; (5) are they known for writing candid and honest (rather than simply “puffed up”) letters; and (6) in the event that the referee is required to make a comparative assessment of applicants, for who else are they writing letters for the particular job or scholarship you have in mind?
IV. MAKING THE APPROACH
30. There are certain times of the year when professors are overwhelmed with requests for letters — namely mid-September to mid-October and mid-January to mid-February. If at all possible, plan to ask for a reference other than during one of those periods — and even better, before the first and after the second.
31. In addition, it is not unusual for some professors to be asked for over 150 letters per year. For this reason, you should try to give your referee at least four weeks’ notice, so this means making your initial contact anywhere from four to six weeks before the deadline for the reference.
32. Asking for a reference should not be a casual affair. Do not approach professors at Coffee House, in the hallways, or on the street to ask for a reference and expect to engage in a substantive discussion at that point. You may, of course, mention to a professor at one of these occasions that you would like to ask them for a reference and confirm that you will be sending them a request by e-mail, or speaking by telephone, or making an appointment to see them.
33. When you send an e-mail there are a number of points that should be covered. Similarly, when you make a telephone call, or make an appointment to see a professor you should have these points written down on a piece of paper so that you are sure to address them in the conversation.
Here is what you should cover in your first inquiry about a letter of reference: (1) who you are and how you would be known to the professor; (2) the job, program, or scholarship for which you are applying; (3) the kind of reference required (phone call, letter, form to fill out, etc.); (4) the deadline for the reference; (5) the reason why you picked them and what you hoped they could write about; (6) the total number of letters that you anticipate asking for during that reference-writing season; and (7) your willingness (or unwillingness) should the professor request this, to let him or her look at your academic file.
34. Providing this information will enable your referee to give and honest and considered answer about whether they could write for you, and even more importantly, about what they could say in their reference letter. For example, it may be that a professor is simply not able to comment on something you were hoping they could say. You might want a professor to discuss your initiative, industry and creativity, but due to insufficient knowledge of you, the professor is not in a position to do so. Most often professors will tell you what they can and cannot comment on. That way, you can make certain that, collectively, your referees will cover all the important bases.
35. But there is more. Many professors will either tell you what, subjectively, they will say in the reference, or will show you a draft of their letter. On many occasions, these comments will be quite positive. If you receive such a letter you should be on guard again two things. On the one hand, do not take the letter too glibly, and assume that you received the positive evaluation because the professor is just “trying to help you out”. On the other hand, do not let the positive reference go to your head and assume that the referee thinks that you are ‘the greatest thing since night baseball.” The appropriate (and more difficult) response is to take the compliments seriously, and think about how to use them to help you build on your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
36. Sometimes, however, you were hoping for a very positive reference from a professor, and the professor indicates that he or she can only give you a lukewarm recommendation. Or you were hoping for a positive comment about a particular ability and the professor informs you that he or she cannot do this.
Receiving this information is valuable for several reasons. Instrumentally it will give you the opportunity to assess whether you wish to pursue such a reference. It will allow you to tell the professor that, all things considered, you would prefer to ask someone else for a reference. In addition, and much more importantly, it will provide you with information about yourself so you can learn how others see you. Many law students have never experienced this type of evaluation (that is, something like an annual performance review in a job) before, and it is an eye-opener.
37. Of course, it may be that, even faced with a few relatively negative comments, you think that it would be good to go ahead with the letter containing negative comments being sent, because the professor is the only one you knows, or because the professor has particular weight in the relevant field, or for any other reason.
If this is the case, you should try to modify your personal statement to acknowledge and address the criticism. For example, you might say, “I recognize that I often have difficulty getting started on my research, but I have discussed this with my professors and am trying to take their counsel to set aside a few minutes as soon as a receive an assignment to scribble down my initial thoughts while I am in the first flush of excitement.” Or you might say, “I recognize that I have not yet developed a good interpersonal manner, and for this reason believe I may not be well suited at the present time for a client contact role but would be better in a research position. I do plan to address this weakness however and look forward to the day when I would have an opportunity to meet clients directly.”
38. Furthermore, irrespective of whether you decide that the letter should not be sent, you should sit down with the professor to sort out the criticism. This exercise will typically be mutually beneficial. You will be able to judge how you are seen by others, but equally importantly, the professor might be able to see how his or her perceptions of you might be only partial, or even wrong.
A final point about “negative” comments. Sometimes these types of comments are written for the best of reasons and may actually be necessary in order for you to obtain a position. There are occasions when a student has a stellar academic and extracurricular record that induces potential employers to believe they are in the presence of a superstar. Should it turn out that the student has poor social skills, does not know how to present himself or herself, and is awkward, there is a tendency for firms not to make an offer because of the huge gap between their pre-interview expectations and the interview itself.
In such a case, it is far better for the reference letter to speak to this aspect of the student’s application and to address it head on, even if it means saying the equivalent of: “this student is brilliant, kind and generous, but a nerd.” To signal this, and still provide a strong recommendation is a way of keeping the potential employer’s expectations realistic while nevertheless allowing them to focus on the true merits of the candidate.
39. Remember that if you have chosen your referees wisely, they will want to write a letter about you and about the specific endeavour you plan to undertake — rather than a mere form letter. This is why you have to provide information not only about yourself, but about the program, institution or position for which you are applying, and your reasons for applying.
It follows that your referee will be writing an individualized letter of reference in each case. Some students believe that referees just produce form letters; some believe that little work is required to “tweak” a letter as between different faculties, or as between an application for a graduate program and an application for a scholarship. Neither of these assumptions are true. Every letter your referee writes takes a special effort in order that it can be most helpful to you. The first letter for a student normally requires anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to write and each letter thereafter from 30 to 60 minutes.
40. Please remember this when you think of applying a scattergun approach to faculties, programs and scholarships. Some students have been known to have asked professors forover 30 letters of reference in connection with a single graduate school application season.
While there is no hard and fast rule, in general if you are applying to graduate school you should not ask for more than 4 or 5 letters, and if for scholarships, no more than 4 of 5 separate scholarships. A request for more than that usually indicates either a failure to set priorities or to do the research necessary to sensibly estimate one’s strength as a candidate. Of course, if you are unsure, discussing your choice of schools and scholarships with your proposed referee can also be a valuable learning experience itself.
41. What follows is a model of what a request for a letter of reference could look like. Notice how the student is keen to provide: (1) information about the addressee and the program; (2) relevant documents in support; (3) a personal account of why the referee is being solicited; (4) a narrative of interactions that would assist the referee in completing the reference; and (5) an indication of how many letters are going to be solicited in all..
25 January 2015
Dear Professor XXXX,
Thank you for your e-mail indicating your willingness to write a letter of recommendation for me. As I mentioned, I am applying to the Master of Laws program with Research Paper at the University of XXX for September 2015. At this point I plan to apply to two other graduate programs that require letters of reference, and I shall be applying for three or four scholarships as well. I would be very obliged if you could support all these applications with letters of recommendation.
In order for this process to be as painless as possible for you (as I understand you must be very busy with other things and other letters to write), I have tried to include everything you will need in this envelope for you to judge my aptitudes for graduate studies, and for this particular program.
I enclose a copy of my updated c.v. as well as a copy of my transcripts. This will also help you assess my academic performance as a whole. I have also included a copy of the recommendation letter you wrote for me in view of my application for an articling position at the Department of Justice in 2002, because it provides a nice summary of the courses I took with you and how I performed in them. In addition, I have added a brief outline of all the occasions we interacted during my time in the Faculty — for example, you judged my second year moot, and did a practice run with the Laskin Team in my last semester after you wrote the enclosed letter for the Department of Justice.
You will find the research proposal I am submitting to the University of XXX, as well as a copy of a paper I wrote as a Term Essay I, directed by Professor YYY last year. This paper explored in great detail the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) test in the context of s. 8 of the Charter. I elaborated on the definition of privacy and on the development of the REP test and its application in both Canadian and American case law. I also highlighted the problems in both jurisdictions and suggested a series of solutions to bring the test back to the approach initially developed in the key case of Hunter v. Southam Inc.
I would like to build on this paper at the Masters level by exploring more specifically one of the major problems encountered in the application of the objective prong of the REP test, and try to define the standard that should be used by courts to counter such a problem, i.e. that of the REP in a free and democratic society. It is to be noted that throughout my readings on the topic, I have yet to encounter a clear definition of “free and democratic society” in the legal sense and believe that a research paper dedicated to suggesting a definition of this standard would be innovative and useful to the field. I should also mention that Professor YYY (who I have also asked for a reference) wrote in his comments attached to my Term Essay that I had an excellent grasp of the subject, that I displayed outstanding care and skill in the research and that he thought I could significantly contribute to this area of knowledge by taking my research to a higher ground (!).
Finally, I should perhaps tell you a bit about the Master’s program at the Faculty of Law at the University of XXX and why I am applying to that program. The program requires students to take 2 compulsory courses: one on law research methodology and one in legal theory, as well as three elective courses. Many of these electives can be chosen out of a long list of courses broaching mainly on two topics: international law and human rights law. Most of these electives involve attending a weekly seminar to discuss various readings and writing a 40-60 page paper on a related topic. The last requirement is, of course, the production of a supervised research paper of superior quality, which offers a critical analysis of, and/or a solution to a legal problem.
My motivation for joining this program is both personal and professional. I would like to further my knowledge on certain areas of the law such as human rights and have the chance to explore law through the lenses of both philosophy and sociology by taking the relevant courses and reading key theoretical texts. I would also like to bring myself to think about legal problems in a more critical and theoretical way. Finally, I would welcome the opportunity to better my research techniques and tweak my writing skills as they pertain to papers in the area of law. An LL.M. would also bring a lot to my career at the Department of Justice. Graduate studies are very well regarded here, and the topic of my research paper would be particularly relevant to my functions as I plan to be working mainly in the areas of privacy and law enforcement. To produce such a paper would go a long way in developing my profile as a specialized lawyer in the context of government.
The letter of recommendation required by the University of XXX is a form, which I have included in this package, along with a return envelope. The application for the Master’s program is due on March 1st, 2015 and the recommendation letter needs to be returned to me so that I can include it with my application. I would therefore be very grateful if you could fill out the form and return it to me in the following weeks.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at home (07999 999999), or by e-mail. Thanks so much.
42. One final point. When you ask professors for a letter and provide them with the relevant information, please remember that given university budgets today, professors are required to pay for their own printing. You can imagine that if you send all your material by e-mail, asking the professor to print it out, that when that professor writes letters for 150 students each of which has 10 pages of supporting material that imposes a significant cost.
Courtesy suggests that it is your responsibility to provide hard copies of your documentation for each of your referees.
V. FOLLOWING UP
43. Most referees will let you know once they have sent the reference. This will occur either because they contact you to pick up the reference in cases where you must submit it with your application, or because they send an e-mail indicating that they have done so.
If you have given your referee lots of advance notice, and have not had confirmation that a letter has been prepared or sent by five days before it is due, it is not impolite to send a brief note to your referee inquiring about the status of the letter. You might say something like this:
Dear Professor XXXX,
I’m sorry to pester you since I know how busy you are. A few weeks ago I asked you if you might be able to write a letter of reference for me in connection with my application(s) toXXX (YYY). The deadlines for submitting my applications are next Thursday and I was wondering if you had had a chance to complete the reference. If so, and it has already been sent, I’d like to thank you very much. If not, and there is any other information I could provide to assist you, please let me know.
44. Elementary courtesy to your referee requires that you inform the referee of the outcome of the processes for which you have solicited letters. If you are unwilling to do this, perhaps you should reconsider whether you are being fair to the person you ask.
In addition, you should personally thank your referees for writing on your behalf. If you do not feel that you have the time to invest in writing a thank-you note or e-mail, you should once again ask whether you are being fair to your referee.
45. Writing a thank you note is one of the most important points in the process. For this is not just about being fair to your referee. It is also about being fair to yourself and the relationship you have with your referee. Is the referee just a service provider, or is this person a teacher whom you respect?
Telling your referee the outcome is especially important if you do not get the position you seek or are not admitted the program you wanted. If a referee has taken the time to write a meaningful letter, it is because he or she feels some commitment to you, and to helping you achieve your goals. Not informing your referee fails to reciprocate this concern.
46. Of course, there is another reason why you should inform your referees of the outcome of the process. It is not unusual that a person who writes a reference letter at one point in a student’s career will be called upon to write other letters at future times — often for as long as five or six years. Keeping your referee informed is one way to ensure that requests for letters in future years will be received favourably.