Guidelines for requesting letters of recommendation

The best letters of recommendation are those that are strongly supportive and provide considerable detailed assessment (with specific examples) of how the applicant demonstrates motivation, intelligence, independence, creativity, critical thinking, research abilities, potential for research expertise, intellectual capacity, academic strengths and all of the other characteristics reviewers are looking for in an applicant. The following is a guide to help you receive the best possible letters of recommendation.

1) Selection of referees
Select referees who know you well enough to provide specific examples in the letter. This is very important and significant thought needs to be put into this process. A strong letter of support can only come from individuals who know you well enough for them to take the time and effort to construct a thoughtful letter. A professor for a course where you received a top grade but never met with the professor can only provide a description of the course and your ranking in the course. Select referees who know you well enough to comment on the information requested in the letter. Think about the kind of letter each referee could write based on what they know about you from their previous interactions with you before you request a letter. This may mean that you need to make the effort to get to know a referee better before you request a letter. Generally speaking, letters from Faculty involved in life sciences research are most valuable, whereas letters from people outside academia are least valuable.

2) Timing of request
It is essential that you provide your referees with sufficient time to write a thoughtful letter. If you give a referee two days to write a letter, it is almost guaranteed that it will not be the strongest letter. It is reasonable to give your referees at least three weeks advance notice for a letter.

3) Provide your referees with all of the information, in a single package, that they will require to write and send the letter.
a) Current CV
b) Current transcripts (need not be official as this is for information only)
c) Completed draft application (note that this is required by some agencies)
d) Any agency specific guidelines for letters (some agencies specifically state what information they want in the letters)
e) If a form is required, provide a copy of the form and if a form is not required let your referee know that it is a regular letter (there is nothing worse than preparing a letter only to find out that it needs to conform to a specific format – this would not reflect well on the applicant)
f) Information on where to send the letter
g) If the letter is to be completed online – let them know they will receive a request by e-mail (otherwise the request could easily be deleted)

4) Optional - provide your referee with specific examples they might include in a letter.
This is not necessary for a letter coming from a direct supervisor, but it might be important if you are requesting a letter from someone you might have worked with several years earlier or from someone outside of the UofA. Some referees would not want this while others would appreciate a reminder of some specific examples that they can include in the letter. Do not just assume your referee would want this, but have a discussion with them and make the offer to provide them with this information to assist them with the preparation of the letter. Some referees may actually ask the applicant to provide a draft letter. If this is requested, make sure that the letter is realistic and provides only information that would be known by the referee.

The letter should be one to two pages. Please note these are confidential and the student should not be copied to them. If the reference letter is from the supervisor it should include information why they chose them as their student if they had no previous interactions.