Blog

The ultimate guide to an academic reference letter

Topics in Higher Education

Interested in applying for jobs or graduate programs? You may wonder how to secure your ideal job and what requirements you’ll need to meet to get into your top-choice universities. Do you need to seek out reference letters? Many jobs will require you to have recommendations from professors, advisors, and other professionals in academia. Other job environments may not require them but may be open to receiving letters that can attest to your preparedness to step into your desired role. We recommend collecting academic reference letters now, while the people you worked with in undergrad or graduate school remember you best.

Here’s how to go about getting the best recommendation letter possible:

The components of an academic reference letter

Academic recommendations should contain key pieces of information about you and the type of roles you are seeking. The grad school admissions committee or hiring committee for your intended career will take certain buzz words into account, differentiating an average reference letter from an excellent one. To stand out, you may want to ensure that the faculty member you plan on asking to write the letter knows what to say and how they should go about saying it. According to The Balance Careers, a solid academic letter of recommendation includes the following:

  • The letter writer’s relationship to the student
  • Examples of the student’s accomplishments
  • Details relating to the student’s performance
  • Character reference and endorsement of the student
  • Information targeted toward the specific role
  • Specific examples of moments the student demonstrated relevant skills
  • Contact information for follow-up as needed

The best academic reference letter writers

The first consideration is deciding whom you’d like to ask for recommendations. You want to find individuals who will write a strong letter on your behalf, advocating for the accomplishments you’ve made and the skills you’ve honed while working with them.

If you’re pursuing a role outside of academia, you may be wary of requesting letters from your academic advisors. However, in many cases, your advisors may be well-placed to testify to the skills and qualities you’d like to translate into the new role. If you’ve worked as your advisor’s research assistant or TA or were a student in one of their courses, they may have a strong sense of your diligence, organization, and resourcefulness.

Do recommendation letters have to be from teachers and professors? Not necessarily — particularly if you’re applying for a job outside academia. In fact, you may secure the best letter of recommendation from someone you haven’t worked with directly as a student. If you’ve been an intern or worked part-time, you may think about getting a reference from your internship coordinator or supervisor. Did you work as a tutor at some point in the past few years? Your tutoring supervisor can attest to the talents you’ve exhibited during this experience, such as your improved teaching abilities and exceptional collaboration skills.

How to request an academic reference

When you’ve decided the best person to write the academic reference letter, you’ll need to figure out the best way to ask them.

The art of asking

Since your contact will be putting a significant amount of time into writing your academic reference letter, it’s important to be thoughtful in how you ask your reference. Email the individual, asking them if they can fit some time into their schedule to meet about this recommendation for a new role or for graduate admissions. If they’re on sabbatical or don’t live in close proximity, you may offer to discuss the letter over the phone or email. Be sure to ask well in advance of the letter’s deadline.

Once your contact has agreed to write a recommendation on your behalf, you can use Interfolio to request and submit your letter. Here’s how to do this:

  • Create your free Dossier account.
  • Request recommendations to collect letters into your account.
  • The letter writer will receive an email asking them to submit their letter to your account.
  • You will be notified when the letter has been submitted to your account.

After your letter writer has submitted their recommendation, send a thoughtful thank you letter. In addition, once you hear back from the organizations you applied to, update your recommenders on which direction you end up taking. They’ve taken the time to write a letter, which means they’re invested in your decision. A follow-up isn’t a necessary step, but it’s a courteous one that can help nurture a long-term professional relationship. Remember – you may need to ask them for additional letters in the future.

Details, details, details

When asking for a recommendation letter of any kind, it’s important to provide your contacts with as many particulars as you can. It’s always best to share as much information as possible about the types of roles you’ll be applying for. Provide them with a list of skills individuals need to succeed in these careers. Highlight the duties you’d be performing on a day-to-day basis if you accept a job. If you’re applying for roles they’ve likely held before — such as Assistant Professor — you may not need to be as specific, but in all cases, we highly recommend providing a significant amount of additional information.

In addition to specifics about the role itself, you’ll want to offer up as much information as you can about yourself. When your advisor is in the early stages of letter-writing, make sure you send along your resume or curriculum vitae, relevant test scores, and maybe even a sample cover letter you’ve drafted for the roles you have in mind. These extra components can help them get more of an idea of your goals and achievements beyond what they’ve seen from you firsthand.

Working to secure a specific job

If you’d like your contact to write a reference for a specific role, you may want to take some extra steps to ensure they are writing the best account possible. In addition, providing extra information can make the process easier on them. Here are two suggestions we have when working with a specific reference:

  • Include the job ad. When you have a specific job in mind, it’s best to provide the letter writer with the job description, which likely includes responsibilities, required skills, and suggested soft skills. They can use the job listing as a tool in creating a high-quality recommendation, as they can highlight the skills you have that directly relate to the desired job.
  • Tell them what qualities you’d like to highlight. Do you have a knack for a specific component of this desired job? Whether or not your contact is aware of this skill, make sure you suggest that they bring special attention to it. That way, they can hammer home the point in their letter, creating a compelling case for you.

Now that you know the ins and outs of asking for an academic reference letter, make sure you use the right platform for requesting and submitting letters. Consider using Interfolio’s Dossier system for a seamless recommendation process.