References & Recommendations

A letter of recommendation is a written statement supporting your application for a specific fellowship or graduate degree program. It differs from a reference in that it is always written and is addressed to a specific program. Many organizations that require a letter of recommendation will provide you with a form that will include a confidentiality waiver.

A reference is a person who will give a strong positive statement about you and your work-related qualities and experience. This statement is usually shared via email or phone. Other times, a reference may be asked to fill out an online questionnaire. Occasionally, a reference may be written in letter format. (Written references are most often used in the field of education.) 

You will most likely be asked for a list of references when you are being considered for a job. Each reference listing should contain:

  • Name, job title, and organization
  • Street address
  • Email address
  • Work phone
  • A brief statement explaining your relationship, for example:
    • Supervisor when Communications Assistant at Constant Contact
    • Professor, American Healthcare course

Your reference list should be proofread and error-free, including proper spelling of names, appropriate titles and correct contact information, and on quality paper that matches your resume and cover letter.

Choosing an Advocate

When deciding whom to ask for a reference or recommendation, consider the following:

  • Is the individual willing to provide strong, favorable information about you?
  • Is the individual’s academic or professional area relevant to your work or area of study?
  • Does the individual know you well enough to say substantive things about you?
  • Does the individual have the time to serve as a reference or write a letter? It is wise to allow someone at least two weeks notice to serve as a reference and one month to prepare a letter of recommendation. If special circumstances mean that you are forced to ask for a reference or recommendation on short notice, be sure to ascertain that the individual is willing and able to meet your tight deadline.

Examples include:

  • Current or previous work supervisors
  • Former professors, campus administrators, advisors, coaches
  • Business colleagues, vendors, customers
  • Leaders in organizations where you volunteer

In the case of choosing someone to write a letter of recommendation, consider carefully whether you will choose to waive your right to read the recommendation and sign your recommendation form at the appropriate place. Though admissions committees recognize and respect that you have the legal right not to waive access to your recommendation, some employers or graduate schools may consider confidential letters more useful.

The Ask

Before requesting a reference or recommendation, it is a good idea to prepare the following information:

  • A description of the job, field, program or fellowship to which you are applying
  • A reminder for the person of how you know each other and why you are asking him/her to be a reference or recommendation at this particular time
  • A copy of a resume highlighting your accomplishments
  • Accomplishments or projects you’ve completed for an employer, or copies of exams or papers you’ve written for an instructor
  • A copy of any portfolio elements, writing samples or personal statements you will be submitting along with your application
  • When relevant, the program or institution’s reference/recommendation form, filled out appropriately. Many references will choose to write theirs on formal letterhead instead of filling out an individual form. Ask them if they would like a stamped, addressed envelope to mail directly or if they prefer to return the letter in a signed, sealed envelope for you to send.

Follow Up

  • Keep references informed of your progress including when and to whom you have given your reference sheet, especially if the interviewer indicates he/she will be contacting them.
  • Send a thank you note to each person who has worked on your behalf.
  • You may store references and letters of recommendation online through Interfolio.