How Do I Select References for My Letters of Recommendation?

One of the most challenging parts of applying to degree programs is choosing your references for letters of recommendation. Many students worry that they will be a bother to someone if they ask for a letter of recommendation. Other students make the mistake of asking for a recommendation from someone who doesn’t know them well enough. In order to get good letters of recommendation, you need to ask the right people and follow proper etiquette.

What Makes Someone a Good Reference?

When choosing references, whether for recommendation letters or for a job commendation, you need to pick people who know you well enough to speak to your talents in a particular area. If you need a reference to get into an engineering program, your high school English teacher might not be the best person to approach for this favor. Your advanced physics teacher might be a better choice, but that depends on your relationship with the instructor. Things to consider when finding references include:

  • Does this individual have a good understanding of my relevant skill set?
  • Do I have a current relationship with this individual?
  • Is this a credible source, not a parent or relative who might be biased about my skill set?
  • How long has this individual known me?

Keep in mind that not every letter of recommendation needs to come from a teacher. Coaches from sports teams often provide excellent recommendations because they can speak to a student’s dedication, sportsmanship and drive. Bosses and coworkers who are familiar with your work ethic and skill set often make great references as well. Community leaders and church members with whom you interact on a regular basis can also provide excellent insight on a student’s character and suitability for a degree program.

How Do You Ask for Recommendations?

Make a list of potential references that includes more names than you actually need. Busy professionals may not always be able to provide quality, written recommendations, and you need to be willing to find someone else if your top picks are unable to help for any reason. To get the best possible written recommendations, follow this etiquette:

  • Always ask for written recommendations four to six weeks before the deadline.
  • When asking for a referral, make sure the individual knows that “no” is an acceptable answer by using language such as “would you have time” or “would you be willing.”
  • Make sure your references for letters of recommendation know you as someone more than just another student in a large general-education class.
  • Be clear about your reason for requesting a letter of recommendation.
  • If applicable, provide an addressed, stamped envelope for your references to mail their letters.
  • Ask with confidence, but do not assume your references will be able to cater to your request.

Teachers, coaches and leaders in the community are usually happy to provide written recommendations for students. However, they lead busy lives, and they need to be treated with respect. Make sure you are asking for these letters from people who truly know you. Once you’ve chosen the right references for letters of recommendation, proceed with confidence. The leaders in your life will be happy to lend a hand to promising students such as yourself.

For more information on applying to colleges, please see: How Do I Apply to Colleges?