Applying to grad school? Letters of reference are key

By Jessica Barr, based on advice from Professor Heather Murray, University of Toronto

Letters of reference are one of the most important aspects of your grad school application. They show your prospective school that you have the support of professionals who are already employed and respected in their field. Along with your Statement of Interest, reference letters give the admissions committee a sense of your personality, potential, and interests - and this is much more significant than marks alone. So here are some helpful tips about getting the best references possible.

     

  1. Start early. If you are reading this in second or third year, all the better. Get to know your favourite profs, take multiple classes with them if possible, and make sure your work for them is of the highest quality you can muster. You will thank yourself later, believe me.
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    When the time comes to start your grad school applications, get in touch with your instructors as soon as possible and ask them if they would be willing to write positive letters of reference for you. You may need to remind them of the courses and years that you studied with them. Arrange a time to meet with them and drop off the material in person. And make sure that you give them the material several weeks (a month, even) before the deadline. You do not want them to feel rushed.

     

  3. Referees (the ones who write the letters, not the ones who give penalties to hockey players!). Letters of reference should be from instructors who know your work well (or fairly well), in subject areas that are related to your intended grad program, and preferably in high-level (e.g. 400-series or fourth-year) classes. The general rule is: go with the instructors who gave you the highest marks!
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    Don't be worried about asking for multiple letters (i.e. if you're applying to several different grad programs) - don't switch referees in mid-stream unless you need different referees for different programs (e.g. applying for law and for English).

     

  5. Organizing the reference letter package. Help your referee get the material out on time by doing the organizing for them. Remember that they may be writing for dozens of students at all different levels! Take to your meeting:
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    1. A cover sheet listing the different schools you are applying to and the deadlines for the letters. Arrange these chronologically. Some letters need to go directly to the school you are applying to and others have to go back to the applicant to be included in the application package. Be clear where they need to be sent. Ask your referee if you can help by picking the letters up and delivering them yourself.
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    3. Your contact information in case the referee needs to get in touch with you.
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    5. An updated resume detailing relevant work, school, and extracurricular experience that the instructor may not know about.
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    7. Photocopies of the work (especially essays and special projects) you did for the instructor's class - it is particularly helpful if you have copies with the instructor's comments still on them. This will help your referee to remember why they liked you!
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    9. A copy of the "Statement of Intent" or proposal that you are writing for your grad school applications (even if it is just a draft at this stage).
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    11. Information on the programs you are applying to if they are unusual or the referee might not be familiar with them.
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    13. All the necessary forms. Many schools want fillable forms rather than simple letters, so make sure you have filled in all the necessary info on the form before giving it to your referee. This usually includes your name, contact info, intended program, applicant number or student number, and possibly confidentiality waivers (this is often the case with U.S. applications).
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    15. Stamped addressed envelopes for each application. Your province may have a free provincial inter-university postal service, meaning that your instructor can send the letter from their university to another university in that province for free. But definitely double-check this with your instructor - never assume.
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    17. You might also want to let your referee know if you are applying for entrance awards and research or teaching assistantships.
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  7. Follow up. Send a thank-you note just before the letters are due thanking the referee for writing on your behalf. It is a nice gesture, and it will also remind them just in case they forgot!
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    After you hear back from your prospective universities, let your referees know what happened: where you were accepted, where you decided to go, even a note when you start the program to let them know how you like it.

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