Letters of Reference Check List

Posted on by Brooke

So, one of the duties that feature heavily this time of year is “letters of reference”: for Ph.D programs, for scholarships, for employment. (The other duties you know also: students need help planning Winter or Spring courses; students struggling with current course work are looking for life lines; and grading for the current term, so well managed up to this point, has just now spun out of control.)

Sometimes it’s hard to write a good letter. Scratch that: it’s always hard to write a good letter, in the same way that it’s always hard to get to any of the housekeeping that fills itself in around course work, administration, office hours, and (hear my hollow laughter) scholarship. What tends to really make the difference is the student herself, by performing at a high level in the first place, by getting the request in to me nice and early, and by giving me lots of information instead of requiring me to make of the letter a whole new research project. It’s arithmetical: time not spent housekeeping a letter is time spent writing the letter.

Over time, I have developed a “check list” that I return to students who ask me for a letter of reference:

The Check List

  1. Whenever possible, please plan to have given me 30 days to write. If not, give me as much time as possible.

  2. If I have written a letter for you in the past, please remind me of this, telling me when that was and who it was for.

  3. Please include the full name and appropriate title for recipient of letter.

  4. Please include the full address for recipient.

  5. Please include any information materials about the program/scholarship/job/etc, unless that information available clearly on a web page (see next). This can be in electronic form or hard copy.

  6. If the scholarship provider, program, employer, etc. has a web presence, please include an URL for that web site.

  7. Please remind me what classes you’ve had with me, and what term(s) they took place. Or, remind me of our other ties. (Sorry, I really can remember, but if you save me these minutes, I’ll put them to better use for you working on the letter itself.)

  8. Please give me clear instructions for delivery: mail directly, return sealed to you, &c.

  9. Please include a portfolio of work you have done for me in the past. (This may not be necessary, I usually still have anything that we have exchanged in electronic format, but at least check with me about this). Material can be electronic or hard copy.

  10. Please offer me a few sentences on how I can really help you with this. What talking points would be helpful? What are the details of the impression you hope to convey? How does my letter contribute to your overall package?

  11. Always remember that a letter writer’s “stock in trade” is honesty. The very best way to secure good letters of reference is to distinguish yourself from your peers early and often in course work. Thanks.

The whole point is to be able to quickly organize the resources that will inform an interesting, positive, distinctive letter.

What do you think? If you teach, have you composed a similar check list? If you are a student, do you have any thoughts about these kinds of requirements?

[Letters of Reference Check List was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/11/17. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]