On Campus

More on references

Because it's still that time of year, and people have questions

Since my last post about reference letters I’ve been fielding a grab bag of quick questions on the topic. So here are a few more tips on asking for reference letters, as well as one more reminder that it really is that time of year, and applications for all sorts of things will be due before you know it.

First, there was a question about asking the same person for multiple reference letters. Believe me, no one will be surprised if you hit them up multiple times for references. That’s just par for the course. Anyone you might ask for a reference almost certainly gets asked on a regular basis and probably keeps a folder for exactly this reason. Even I’ve got one. I know if someone’s asked me once they are likely to come back, and there’s no sense writing something from scratch when I can reuse elements from previous letters instead. That said, as a courtesy to the potentially less organized, if you know you’ll be asking someone again you might say as much. It could save some trouble.

On a related note, I was asked about keeping letters of reference for later and holding on to generic ones for use as needed. Generic letters of reference may be very useful for job applications and in a case such as that keeping them around for later could be useful. But for applications to post-secondary programs or for scholarships or awards (the purposes I tend to assume, at this time of year) you’ll want more targeted letters. That isn’t to say that every letter can or will be a carefully crafted work of art, but each one should speak directly to the purpose for which it is intended. If nothing else it should be addressed correctly.

You may need to ask someone for a letter who you actually don’t know very well. I know that can be awkward. Do keep in mind this is a very common problem and the people you are likely to ask will have faced this issue many times before. As I suggested in my last piece, be prepared to make their lives easier by having your CV and any relevant personal statements ready for reference. That way your referee won’t be left flailing around for lack of anything to say about you. But don’t feel you need to explain or justify why you’re asking someone with only a passing familiarity with you for a reference. It happens. It’s better to get a reference from someone who does know you really well, of course, but that isn’t always possible.

I was also asked about references for phone interviews. To be perfectly honest, I’m not familiar with anything that requires your references to give phone interviews, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible. It’s common to be asked for contact information for your referees or for people who can verify activities you may be citing in your information. Where that happens, however, it’s rare for anyone to actually be called, and even then it would be a very brief conversation. A full on interview would be very rare, and I’d assume aimed at something special.

This does, however, remind me of another point. Show some sensitivity to the fact that you’re asking for a favour here and it may be a bit of an imposition. Whether it’s a phone interview or just a letter, these things do take time and effort. Again, you’re almost certainly dealing with someone who does this regularly and probably regards it as part of their job so you need not grovel or apologize endlessly. But do communicate that you understand and appreciate the effort. If you come across like you believe you’re simply entitled to a reference it’s going to reflect badly on you at exactly the time when you least want that to happen.

A final note. If someone expresses reluctance to write a letter for you or to act as a reference – move on and find someone else. Note there’s a fine line between actually refusing to write a letter and pointing out there may be better people out there. Some folks simply aren’t the most prominent referees and in academia, especially, that can matter. So in a case such as that you might consider the point and request the letter anyway. But sometimes reluctance can also mean that your chosen referee just doesn’t have enough positive things to say about you. Hopefully your judgment is good enough that you won’t ask someone who would have trouble acting in that role, but it has happened. I’ve been asked, at least once, for a reference from someone I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. So if the person you’ve asked seems to be begging off you should take the hint.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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