By Gabija Žukauskaitė
Published 2023 03 08
Reference letters play a big part in applications to both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Depending on the target university, a student is usually asked to choose one or two academic referees. Here are some top tips for navigating this process.
Most university application guidelines will tell you that utmost care should be taken when selecting referees. That is because a teacher who will write you a reference needs to know you well and be able to provide a careful laudatory assessment based on your academic capability, skills, and personal qualities. Hence, a referee should ideally be a long-time teacher who has assessed your work and can talk about your potential in higher education, passion for the subject you seek to pursue, and relevant personal attributes in a credible manner. It is highly advisable to also choose teachers whom you have really impressed over the years and who are positively predisposed toward you.
If you still have a few years left until you apply to college, you can anticipate this need and prepare ahead of time. For example, you can set your eyes on 2-3 teachers, and go the extra mile in their class by being very active, asking for additional exercises beyond just the regular schoolwork, engaging and being helpful to the teacher.
Sometimes, a recommender can be a coach or somebody who supervised you in a professional setting, like an internship. However, for most undergraduate programs, unless you’re aiming to become a professional athlete and have trained with your coach for a very long time, academic references are preferable.
Referees need to be provided with an adequate amount of time to write a strong recommendation letter. Very often applications are automatically deemed incomplete if the requested references are missing by the deadline of the program. This is why many universities recommend starting your application by filling out the reference section first. Here at Atlas Academy, we advise students to give at least a month for their teachers to write and submit the recommendation, or even more if you anticipate that many students will ask the same teacher for a reference letter or the teacher will be especially busy for a period of time leading up to the application deadline for some other reason.
Students are also advised to take time to meet their referees to discuss their study choice and target universities, which will help them better understand the stakes involved and provide additional talking points for the letter. It is also good practice to compose a CV or a resume and share it with your referee to give them a more structured outline of your accomplishments. It should outline not only your achievements in class but also extracurricular activities, as well as other commitments and interests. Keep in mind that the referee has many dozens, if not hundreds of students they supervise, so it might be difficult for them to recollect your specific projects, work, etc. You, the student, are most likely to recall all the times you really excelled in class, and should subtly remind the teacher of these as well.
If you notice after some time that the deadline is approaching and the reference is not submitted yet, do not hesitate to politely remind the teacher about the upcoming deadline. In some cases, this can even encourage referees to ask additional questions and give the text some more thought, producing a better outcome.
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