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References Available Upon Request

By failing to cultivate a professional relationship with their references, many graduating students undermine their chances to land a job, score a scholarship or gain acceptance to a graduate program.

By Joe Schall

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GECC Fall 2008: References Available Upon Request

Because I'm in the middle of a conference with a wiry electrical engineering student, I wait to answer my office phone until the fifth ring.

A company representative introduces herself. "Do you have a moment to answer some questions about Mr. John Smith?" she asks. (Not his real name.)

"Who?" I say, suddenly wishing I hadn't answered the phone at all. My student's paper on a new algorithms compiler beckons from my desk.

"John Smith," she replies. "We're considering hiring him, and he's listed you as a reference."

After a moment's reflection, I note that I can't recall anyone named John Smith.

"You're certain you don't remember him?" she asks.

"Not at the moment," I say, my student fidgeting nearby in his seat, "but if you leave your number..."


After my student hustles from my office, late for his Circuits and Devices class, I dig through my records and solve the mystery. John Smith had indeed taken a technical writing class from me two years before, but I hadn't heard from him since. I find one of his papers in my files: "A Formal Proposal to My Parents to Turn Their Garage into my Music Studio." I had given it a D+, and only saved a copy of it to use as an example of bad rhetoric for my future students. On the phone, I hadn't remembered John's proper name because he had never used it. In his papers, in class and in conferences he insisted on being called "Blink." I never knew how he came by this carefree nickname, but I assume that his parents—who, I now recall, had flatly turned down his proposal—had not assigned it to him.

Further, I couldn't understand why he would even list me as a reference: He had received a C+ in my class, and the plus was a gift.

For me, this example crystallizes what too often happens when students list faculty members whom they have not fully prepared as references. By failing to cultivate a professional relationship with their references, many graduating students undermine their chances to land a job, score a scholarship or gain acceptance to a graduate program. And the students are not always at fault—some faculty members are uncertain about how best to act as references, and they rely on their students to work through the process with them. The case of "Blink" is an extreme example, to be sure, but even the best students miss opportunities to generate winning references for themselves. After writing scores of reference letters and reading through hundreds of them over the years, I offer the following tips for helping faculty members and former employers become stellar personal and academic references for you.

Available Upon Request


Begin by discerning how many and what kind of references you need for the circumstances, so that when you approach a potential reference you are ready to answer such questions. Many small scholarships require just one letter of support from a faculty member. Employers rarely require letters, but typically want three to five references (both academic and work-related) whom they can quickly ring up. Graduate schools usually request at least three formal letters of recommendation from professors or research supervisors.

Always consider your favorite professors, former supervisors and academic mentors as your best reference candidates. For college graduates, the specific use of "character" references is rare, so I wouldn't recommend your local minister or faithful Aunt Sadie as likely choices. Instead, you are expected to choose references who can speak to your character as well as your communication skills, or research ability, or classroom performance, or suitability for graduate study.

References Available Upon Request

GECC Fall 2008: References Available Upon Request


You must carefully study the materials provided to be sure that your references are suitable, especially if you need recommendations for graduate school or a scholarship. Some applications, for instance, encourage you to choose individuals who can speak specifically to your teaching ability or design experience rather than those with the highest stature. Take such advice seriously. I know of an instance in which a student chasing an NSF fellowship nagged a university Board of Trustees member into writing a letter of reference, hoping to blow away the competition with the Board member's reputation. In the end, the hapless student received a one-sentence letter of recommendation: "I imagine that he would make a good candidate." Avoid such misfortune by being certain of a good fit between your references and the selection committee's needs.


Avoid abruptly asking someone for a letter of reference after class, in the hallway or via email. Instead, make an appointment with the individual to ask if he or she would be willing to serve as a reference, and be prepared to answer some relevant—perhaps challenging—questions during your meeting. Especially if the individual has written letters before, he or she may immediately ask who your other references are, how many references you need and your deadlines. Before committing to writing a letter, some references test you out a bit, prompting you to explain your reasons for pursuing a particular opportunity and expecting you to have ready answers to such questions. Ideally, bring to your meeting any relevant printed information (a company brochure, scholarship application forms, a printout of a Web page) that shows you have made a thoughtful effort to anticipate the writer's questions.

In the case of a former employer with whom you cannot easily have a sit-down meeting, send a typed letter specifically reminding the individual of your role in the company and respectfully requesting a reference based on your work performance. Plan this initial contact so that the reference has ample time—ideally, at least two to three weeks—to write a letter if one is needed. Again, copies of relevant printed information for your references are always prudent.


Collectively, your references should reflect a balanced and best picture of you. A recent Truman Scholarship winner obtained support letters from a university program coordinator, an assistant professor of political science and a Red Cross supervisor. The blend of these references provided the student with testimony of her university involvement, her political savvy and her exceptional work ethic—traits the selection committee was specifically looking for. If employers want references who can comment from a particular perspective, such as your capacity for teamwork, be certain to coach your references as such. Stated respectfully, a request of your reference such as "I'm hoping you can comment on my research skills in your letter," is perfectly appropriate. Also, let each reference know who your other references are and what role each will fulfill. When students do this, I sometimes check with the other references to be sure that we're presenting a comprehensive and unified picture.


Consider that a professor, graduate student or immediate supervisor who knows you on a first-name basis will serve you better than a distant department head who only knows you by your transcript or work performance evaluation. Ideally, always seek references who know you both academically and personally, and even strategize a way for that person to get to know you better. Although you can't expect to retrofit your references, you can reactivate a relationship that has been dormant for a year or two. Cultivate a fresh relationship by attending a talk that a chosen reference is giving, by reading an article the reference authored, or talking with other students who know the individual well.

Once you have secured someone as a reference, offer a copy of your resume or application essay for the office files. This teaches them more about you, and you may even wow them with an accomplishment they didn't know you'd achieved. Most references will pull out your resume or essay while they take a phone call or write a letter about you, thus making their responses more concrete and personal. Some references will even offer to critique these materials for you. Always accept such an offer.


Assuming that you've chosen your references thoughtfully, most people you approach will be happy to serve as a reference for you, just as others did for them. Nevertheless, listen carefully to avoid overlooking a potentially negative response. If you're hearing comments such as "I'm not sure I know your work well enough to provide a good recommendation," or "Maybe your other references can speak more specifically about your qualifications," or even "I'm so busy right now I'm not sure how I'll fit it in," be willing to reconsider your reference choice. Your reference may be hinting that he or she can't honestly give you a favorable recommendation, or that even being asked is irritating or that work is overwhelming just then. I've read several letters of recommendation (and I've written one) in which it was clear that the letter writer was miffed with the student for not selecting an alternative reference. Obviously, such letters greatly reduce a student's chances of success.


Some students habitually ask professors for an all-purpose letter that they can carry with them to potential employers, but this practice breaches protocol in a number of ways. Professors normally expect the letter they write to be kept confidential, while employers typically prefer to solicit references from interesting candidates rather than be given a letter of reference they have not requested. Also, the best letters of reference are those that are kept current. On occasion a former employer—say, at a company where you completed a co-op or summer job—will offer you a non-confidential letter of reference that you can keep handy in case one is needed. Clearly, you should accept such an offer, but be certain the letter fits the circumstances for which you're using it.


On an application form for a scholarship or graduate school, you will usually be asked if you wish to waive your right to access your letters of reference. Do so. The letter writer will likely be more comfortable and forthright, and the selection committee will be assured of unvarnished opinions from your references.

A related issue is your prompting the reference to discuss your qualitative or quantitative performance. Many students worry that it is a risk to invite a reference to discuss their grades, their exams or papers, or their on-the-job performance. Typically, just the opposite is true: A good reference will candidly explain, for instance, that the B you received still ranked you in the top 5% of her class, or that the performance rating from your co-op supervisor was based on a comparison to full-time engineers or even that you had a difficult academic semester because of involvement in other activities. In short, the reference is in a position to create the proper context and nuance for the true measure of your performance, and both employers and selection committees value genuine contextual support over fawning nonspecific praise.


Be certain your reference has thorough and accurate details related to any position for which you're applying, as specific as the proper spelling of someone's name or as broad as a company's yearly sales figures. My best students always make it a practice to let me know which companies might call me, when and, in some cases, even provide me with company literature or Web addresses so that I can be prepared to match the student with the company needs.

If a recommendation letter is needed, be sure you know to whom the letter is to be addressed and, as a professional courtesy, give the writer a stamped, addressed envelope in which to mail the letter. (This also ensures that you, rather than your reference, are in charge of getting the address correct.) Provide an exact deadline for the letter's completion and gently remind the letter writer of it later. Also, be aware that a common practice is for your references to give or mail a sealed letter back to you, typically signed over the seal to ensure confidentiality. You can then send all your letters and application materials in a single package. Be aware, and make your references aware, of such details.


When you apply for a job, graduate school or a scholarship, you are stepping onto the first rung of a long academic or professional ladder. Act accordingly by taking yourself and your supporters seriously. Do not undermine the position for which you are applying or be self-deprecating, especially in the company of your references. Unfortunately, many students grovel as they ask for references, openly worry that a faculty member or boss might not be a good letter writer, admit that they're just applying to graduate school to avoid getting a job or feel compelled to criticize the company or program to which they're applying, apologizing that they cannot aim higher. Avoid these tendencies and instead elevate the circumstances for everyone involved. Recognize that most professionals change jobs five or more times over the course of their careers and that graduate work always provides further professional enhancements. View yourself and all of your opportunities as professional and valuable, and your references will respond in kind.


One of the most pleasant experiences one of your references can have is a follow-up thank-you note, an email, a phone call or a letter—ideally announcing that you have secured the desired position. Regardless of whether you receive the position or not, initiating and maintaining follow-up contact with your references is both courteous and professionally smart. A current example for me comes from one of my former students who is finishing up graduate work at Yale. Although I haven't seen her for three years, she has faithfully emailed me updates of her activities and a revised resume each semester, and thus I have been able to update her recommendation letter and concretely support her bid for various fellowships—all of which she has received—over the last six years.

As this example demonstrates, you are ultimately in charge of the effectiveness of your references, and you can act in ways that ensure quality recommendations and superior opportunities.

Joe Schall is the Giles Writer-in-Residence for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.


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