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Eric Cai

SFU Alumni
Science › Chemistry
British Columbia Cancer Agency - Genome Sciences Centre
Statistician

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I recently blogged about fast-approaching deadlines for professional programs and graduate studies. Applying to those programs and scholarships require reference letters from professors, and – having done so as a student at SFU – I have learned that this task is far more intense than simply sending a quick email. Here are some tips for how to make it easier for your professors to write the best reference letter for you.

1. Be Proactive

Professors are very busy people with many demands on their time, so give plenty of advanced notice to them in your request for letters of recommendation. At the very minimum, they usually ask for two weeks to write such a letter, but they would definitely appreciate getting one month to do so.

2. Choose your Referees Wisely  

If you earned uncompetitive grades or had suboptimal relationships with certain professors, do not approach them for reference letters. It will be a waste of their time, and they will not write good recommendations for you. Only approach those who can write glowing praise about your potential for your intended pursuit.  George Agnes, the former Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and current Associate Dean of Science at SFU, once told me that my referees can't just write good things about me – they need to write great things about me to distinguish myself from the many other applicants for the same graduate scholarship.

3. Prepare in Advance

Before you even approach them for a reference letter, prepare the following items for them to review in case they ask for them.

a) Your most recent unofficial transcript.

b) Your curriculum vitae (CV) about your professional and educational accomplishments – note that this is longer and more detailed than a résumé.  Ask the Career Services Centre for help with drafting your CV if needed.

c) A brief statement about how you will use this reference letter. What programs or scholarships are you applying to?  What do you aim to accomplish by pursuing these endeavours?  What are your long-term goals? How will these endeavours help you achieve them?  This statement does not need to belong – it just provides a useful framework for the professor to understand why he/she is writing this letter for you.

4. Collect Information

Be prepared to remind your professor of what you accomplished under his/her teaching by assembling a package of your assignments, lab reports, papers or projects while under their instruction. If you received a high grade in the course but did not establish a very strong personal connection with the professor, then this package will be especially important.

5. Create a List

Prepare a list of the following information for all of the letters that you need in a spreadsheet for your professors:

a) Program of study

b) Institution of study

c) Deadline of application

d) Address of institution

e) Recipient of the letter of recommendation

6. Write to your Professor

Now that you are prepared, go ahead and write that email to your professor to ask for a reference letter. Include that brief statement in Step 2c) in your email. If a long time has elapsed since you last interacted with that professor, briefly remind them of how you met him/her. Conclude your email by telling them that your transcript, CV, the package of relevant accomplishments, and spreadsheet of all the intended recipients are ready for them to view, and wait for them to ask for those items in the formats of their choice. In the body of your email, write the earliest deadline that you have to give them a sense of how urgent the letter needs to be.

7.  Follow Up

After you receive news about the outcomes of your applications, email your professors to update them about those outcomes and thank them for their time – regardless of the result. Thank them for their time and support of your career – because they deserve it. 

Jeff Rosenthal – a statistics professor from my other alma mater, the University of Toronto – had a very strict set of expectations for students who asked him for reference letters. Not all professors ask for the exact same things, but this is a very informative guide on how you can make the process easy for your professors, so you can get the best reference letters possible. 

  • Eric Cai Sep 8, 2015
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About the Author

headshot of Eric Cai

Eric Cai

SFU Alumni
Science › Chemistry
British Columbia Cancer Agency - Genome Sciences Centre
Statistician
Connect with Eric on social media: WordPress, Twitter, YouTube

Eric Cai is a former Career Peer Educator at SFU Career Services who graduated in 2011.  He now works as a statistician at the British Columbia Cancer Agency. In his spare time, he shares his passion about statistics and chemistry via his blog, The Chemical Statistician, his Youtube channel, and Twitter @chemstateric. He previously blogged for the Career Services Informer under “Eric’s Corner” when he was a student.  You can read all of Eric's newer posts here.

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