Reference letter thoughts

I’ve been lucky so far, and I haven’t had to write a reference letter for anyone. But, this is now my second summer where I’ve been the primary supervisor for someone. This means it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I will need to write one in the near future.

If you look up how to write reference letters there are a zillion results (over 4.7 million on google). However you don’t have to rely just on the internet to figure out how to proceed. First of all, if you’re a grad student, you should have access to lots of people who’ve written tons of reference letters, starting with your supervisor. Think about it, you’re probably one of the people they’ve written a reference letter for.

Many campuses have career services – some place to get help with writing cvs and cover letters, how to prepare for interviews, and how to write reference letters. In the first page of results from google, there’s a pdf from the University of Alberta all about reference letters. It deals with both how to go about getting one, what a good one entails, and tips on how to write one. It also includes a bunch of example reference letters, including ones targeted for scholarships and grad school entrance.

based on my experience of getting reference letters and talking to others about writing them, I have three main tips/suggestions when it comes to writing them.

  1. If you need more information about the person to write a reasonable letter, ask for it. I’m always asked to provide copies of my transcript, details about my research, and any other information that might be useful for writing the letter.
  2. If you can’t write them a good recommendation, you may want to suggest that they ask someone else. Don’t write a letter that you don’t believe in.
  3. If you end up writing a letter for someone and you don’t have a bunch of positive comments to make, try to focus on the facts. Check out the first sample reference letter in the link above – it’s written with this idea.

I’m looking forward to the day I get to write my first reference letter. Why? Because I know the first one will be hard to write. But I’ll never get better at it if I don’t start somewhere. And it’ll feel like another step on this path of learning. Should I end up in academia I’ll end up writing a lot of reference letters. And even if I decide on industry, assuming (hoping) that I’d end up in a position that requires supervising some people, I’d end up writing reference letters there to.


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