A reference or reference letter is a description and endorsement of your skillsets relevant to the program you are applying for. A referee is the person who writes it.
A good referee has a personal connection with you and is familiar with your skills and personality.
Be proactive to prepare a list of all the people who can adequately vouch for your academic performance and relevant experiences, including:
Other professional connections
If I don’t have 3 academic referees, can I ask a work supervisor for one of them?
If I can get a great reference from a professor outside of my discipline, is that OK?
Usually yes. Check the admissions webpage of the program(s) you’re applying to, especially looking for a FAQ. If there is no information there about the program’s preferences, you could contact their admissions department. Every program has unique admissions expectations.
Know when your application deadlines are and ideally give your referees 6-10 weeks to prepare your reference letter.
Have your other application documents ready to provide to your reference (CV / resume and personal statement / letter of intent).
Contact your referee via a professional email (so they can recognize your name), or an in-person visit (so they can recognize your face).
Ensure you carefully choose the language in your email: make sure you ask for a “positive” or “strong” reference.
Dear Professor _____,
I hope this email finds you well. Are you enjoying your semester so far?
I'm writing today because I have decided to further my education by pursuing graduate studies in _______ next year. I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from the ________ classes that I took with you over the past three years. I am in the process of organizing my application documents and was wondering if you would be willing to provide a positive reference letter for me.
[Optional: My GPA is ___, I received ___grade in your class, my major paper/project was____.]
I would be happy to provide further documentation including deadlines, and supplemental materials if you are comfortable being a reference for me. The schools I am applying to have deadlines ranging from ____ to _____ .
If they say yes...
If they say no...
The letter below is shared with permission. It was based on notes provided by the student. The topics she selected were based on characteristics identified by the graduate program as desirable. It is quite common for your referee to ask for notes on which to base a reference letter, and you can base your notes on the information you find on the admissions website!
January 19, 2021
Dear Admissions team,
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing STUDENT through a student organization, [name of science-relevant club]. My team organizes 2 events with this student group annually, and of course we provide 1:1 support to students. At her request, I am sharing some personal information about her with you.
As part of [club], STUDENT was responsible for outreach and communication. In her first year in the role, she implemented a do-what-we-did-before approach and found the attendance at their events were low. In her second year in the role, she employed new strategies for marketing and significant increased their attendance at events, which we observed at the events we co-organized. She learned from her experience, and was also able to act on a higher level of confidence in her ability to act strategically having seen what did and did not work. Likewise, she tells me her grades improved very significantly from first year to her final year, which I imagine was also a result of thoughtfully observing what worked and what didn’t. I might argue that STUDENT is therefore an innate scientist, since experimentation and observation are the key steps in any scientific inquiry.
Student clubs at U of T Scarborough are led by executive who are either elected or hired into the role – either way, they are required to communicate effectively with their members and among each other. U of T Scarborough’s courses also tend to require a great deal of group work, both essays and presentations, so I believe STUDENT will have successfully completed a number of these. You will see the outcomes of these team efforts on her transcript.
STUDENT completed two challenging programs, Neuroscience and Human Biology, in addition to being engaged in [club] and other student organizations on campus as well as being involved as a healthcare volunteer in her community. She has clearly been committed to a career in healthcare in some form for a long time! Whichever medical school is lucky enough to select her will appreciate her strong communication and teamwork skills.
[staff member’s name and title]
[email and phone]
Some institutions use a Reference Form like this, with rating scales and space for text.