Top tip: Requesting letters of reference

Recommendation letters are an integral part of every graduate school application. At UBC, we require a minimum of three references for application to graduate programs, though some graduate programs may have special requirements for references. Check the individual graduate program's website for the required number and format of references to be submitted.

Who should you ask?

You want to ask someone who is not only willing to write you a strong letter of reference, but someone who is also able to write you a strong letter. If they don’t know you or your work very well, they might be willing to write you a letter, but will they be able to say great and insightful things about you? 

These may be faculty from whom you have taken multiple classes and/or who have supervised you on projects, or an employer who’s worked closely with you and can speak to your skills and motivations. Academic references are great for providing insight into a prospect’s academic competencies and aptitude as well as personality characteristics that may contribute to their potential to succeed in graduate schools.

Here are some things you may want to consider when choosing your referees. Are they well-regarded in their field? If they’re professors, do they have tenure? Think about the courses you have taken – would any of those professors be a good candidate? How about any research opportunities, or internships? Is there someone from any relevant volunteer experience that can speak to your brilliance?

What makes you a good candidate for a great letter? 

Stand Out. Get to know the professor. Ask questions in class, before class, after class is over. 

The more they can say about you beyond just your performance in class the better. It’s tough to write a reference for someone they don’t remember. Have you had any discussions with them where you’re able to illustrate independent thinking or well-founded opinions? Did you have opportunity to show interest in their research or further understanding of the course?

Some professors might only agree to provide a letter for students that have worked on a research project in their group. So, stand out. Preparation for a reference starts well before you actually need it.

How should you ask?

The key word here is ask. Don’t assume that by simply listing a person’s name that they’d be willing to write a letter for you. You’ll want to confirm all the details with them first, so they’re not hearing about it for the first time from our online e-reference system!

Plan ahead. When it is time, ask your letter writers 4-6 weeks in advance. They’re busy. They’re teaching, they’re doing research, they’re grading and writing grants, they’re leading labs, and they’re writing letters for other students. They need time to write you a great letter. The longer the lead time the better.

Always be polite. Gentle nudging is OK, if you haven’t heard from them in a couple of weeks. That being said, be prepared if the person you ask declines your request to write you a letter. 

Provide the information they need to craft a great letter. This may include: 

  • A snapshot of your academic history or a copy of your transcripts
  • An up to date CV or resume
  • If you’re applying to a research program, you could include a draft of your statement of interest or your research proposal
  • A few points that would be great if they can highlight in their letter
  • Some nuts and bolts stuff like your personal contact details, a description of the program you’re applying to, what the deadlines are, and an outline of the submission process. 

If they agree to write you a letter, remember to thank them. Gratitude is important. 

Finally, share the outcome. If you are offered admission, let your letter writers know! Believe it or not, they love hearing about your successes, especially because it may be due, in part, to their amazing letter.

For more on reaching to potential letter of reference writers, sign up for one of our online information sessions

For more information on formats, and how to submit letters of reference, refer to our website.