The Letter of Reference

Deadlines are fast approaching! For many graduate programs, the deadline is early February or March. That's why I've been so busy lately. No, I'm not applying to get into grad school. Been there, done that, got the degree(s). I'm busy because I'm writing letters of reference for students who want to further their education--grad school, rehab med, med school, and even law school.

It's a good idea to prepare yourself long before your application deadline--years before. This includes thinking about who you will potentially ask for a reference. Here are some tips:

  • First, what kind of class did you take? A small lab class? That instructor would be able to say things about your hands-on research abilities. A class with a lot of written assignments/papers? In that case, your ability to structure your ideas and communicate them effectively could be described. A class with multiple choice exams only? Um, this is what you'll get: "Dear Institution: This person apparently took my class and seems to have gotten a grade of X. Cheers."
  • Request a letter of reference from an instructor who knows you well. That is, did you just go to class? OK, that's great, but unless you asked a lot of intelligent, insightful questions in class--and mentioned your name a lot--that's not enough.
  • Did you make an effort to go to the instructor's office to ask any questions you had? Your extra effort in traipsing all the way to some office out in the armpit end of campus will be noted, and remembered.
  • Oh yeah--one more: Did you get an excellent mark? Like, at least an A? (That goes without saying, I hope.)
I won't write a letter of reference for just anyone. My criteria are spelled out in my FAQ. The periodical University Affairs has a good articles on letters of reference, including How to Ask for a Reference Letter (this one is about letters of reference for jobs, but the general advice still applies). There are also articles on how to write them, and How to Properly Turn Down a Reference Letter Request (in case you're wondering why someone might say no).

The best part for me (and, okay, for students too, I guess) is hearing that they were accepted. That makes me happy--that I've been able to help someone on their way, just like others helped me. Getting presents--like the one in the photo--upon getting accepted is definitely not required. (But thanks anyway, E.H., the cookies are yummy--and congrats again!)

Gotta go finish up one more letter of reference now...

Why aren't you studying?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...
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This isn't really related to this particular post... but as a knowledgable instructor at the Univeristy of Alberta... who frequently follows up on his comments... can you tell me what the definition of "domestic affliction" (as mentioned in the calendar in reference to deferred examinations) is? Thanks!!!

Karsten Loepelmann said...
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@Anonymous: I think it's not defined anywhere because then loopholes could be exploited. I've had students claim a bunch of different domestic afflictions for midterms: there was a fire in their apartment, they had to file a restraining order against their abusive spouse (or appear in court), or one of their parents was dying of cancer.

Unfortunately, what's acceptable as a "domestic affliction" varies from Faculty to Faculty, so it would be wise to check with your Faculty office before your final exam. It's bad enough to have to go through troubles in your personal life--you don't need to get a zero on your final exam, too.

Hope this helps!

Anastasia said...
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...and if anyone is wondering, the university will NOT accept "home was invaded by alien rays" as an acceptable domestic affliction...even if you provide prove.

Anastasia said...
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*proof

Karsten Loepelmann said...
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Yeah, but if you're sick, you don't need a doctor's note. Or anything, right? 'Cause we trust you!

Anastasia said...
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That's good. I'm sure no student would ever abuse that.

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