“Who (and how) do I ask for a reference or letter of recommendation?”

A student asks,

Who are the best people to ask for references and how do you ask for a professional reference? I always feel like I’m being a nuisance when I ask for a reference/letter of recommendation?”

Let me start answering the question by clarifying the difference between a “reference” and a “recommendation.”

References

Lots of employers ask for “references.” They want the names and contact information for people they can call or email to confirm (at a minimum) that you are who you say you are and to ask (at a maximum) about your strengths, weaknesses, and suitability for the position.

The best people to ask are work supervisors (including volunteer and project work) or professors. If you haven’t yet formed any connections with professors, a high school teacher who knows you well will do for now. Avoid using family members, family friends, and anyone who knows you from a purely social context. Former employers who can speak to the specific qualifications a new employer is seeking are ideal.

Being a “reference” for someone is pretty easy — it just requires one to respond to the email or phone call and answer questions truthfully. Asking someone to serve as a reference does not necessarily meant that they will get that call — contacting references is generally one of the later stages in the hiring process, after several other screenings have taken place. Most people have relied on references at some point in their life and are happy to pay that service forward.

Recommendations

Letters of recommendation are rarely required for jobs, but they are often necessary for graduate school applications, fellowship programs, and some service opportunities. Asking for a letter of a recommendation is a bigger deal than asking for a reference, as it requires the person to write something (either an actual letter or open-ended responses on an online form) as well as navigate the process of submitting the recommendation in the required ways by a deadline.

Usually faculty members are the people to ask for recommendations, preferably faculty that know you and who have responded positively to your work. Writing recommendation letters is part of a faculty member’s job, so asking for one is reasonable. However, it is a big request, so people may say no for any number of reasons — they don’t have time, they don’t think they can speak positively or specifically enough about your work to help your application, they don’t remember you.

You can make it easier for a faculty member to say yes by

  • Asking well in advance of the deadline (a month lead time is good)
  • Explaining in some detail the kind of program you’re applying to and why you’re interested.
  • Providing examples (with grades and comments) of the written work you did for that class
  • Giving clear instructions about what the recommendation requires and where it should go (including links).

You can ask TAs and instructors (non-tenure stream faculty) for recommendations, and if such faculty members have the best knowledge of you and your work, they may be the best choice for some graduate programs. For law school and MA/PhD programs in your major, however, the rank of your recommenders matters, and it’s best to ask tenured faculty (the more famous, the better).

Email humanitiesprc@illinois.edu with other career-related questions you’d like us to answer on the blog!