Guidance on Asking for a Reference

Daniel Chandler

  1. I am providing this general guidance so that I can refer students to this page for the answers to frequently asked questions. As one student said to me, going through this reference process properly requires as much work as a module in its own right. Note also that the process may take anything from a few days to several months, so give as much notice as possible.
  2. Before you ask for a reference take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses. You might try thinking of three words which best describe you and you could ask a friend to try describing you in three words also. Does this say anything about how well you know yourself? You could also try one of the online 'personality' or aptitude tests. The Myers-Briggs (MBTI) inventory is particularly popular. It exists in a host of forms but here are some links...

  3. Unfortunately for me I seem to be what is rare in sport - a popular referee! This means that I get many more requests for references than I can handle so I may be happy to write one for you in principle, but I cannot guarantee to write one for you on each occasion you ask for one.
  4. If you ask for me to be a referee this usually means that either the person who wants the reference or you will send me a form to fill in - the completed forms are not often shown to you, unlike the old-fashioned testimonials. The process does not normally involve me sending you an open testimonial to be sent 'to whom it may concern': these are usually considered to be of little value by those requiring a reference on you. Therefore, if I agree to be a referee, do not just sit there waiting for me to send you an open testimonial - make sure that I get the reference form from the employer or institution that wants it (together with a stamped and addressed envelope).
  5. If you would like me to write a reference for you for a job or a course, you should be - or have been - one of my students - not necessarily on the MCS degree scheme, though that helps, but a student on a module on which I have taught.
  6. It is always advisable to ask for a reference initially face-to-face - that way, you can judge whether it seems as if you've made a good choice. Ask your prospective referee: 'If I were to ask you to write me a reference, would you be prepared to do so?'. If they hesitate or look uneasy, I would strongly advise you to think again about who you ask! Lacklustre references can dog your career for years without you being aware of it. Never ever ask for a big favour such as this in a way that looks too casual - such as a text message! And if the person declines, don't press them to change their mind: it won't lead to the reference you want.
  7. If one of your lecturers ever offers, unasked, to write you a reference at some time in the future then the chances are that they would write you a good one, so, if you can, take them up on it!
  8. Nowadays, few people would write you a clearly damning reference, but references often require 'reading between the lines' - what a referee does not say may be what kills your chances. Make sure that referees who want to write you a good reference do not find themselves without something positive to say about all of the key factors being looked for by the people who requested the reference.
  9. Always send your referee a written outline of your relevant experience for the job or course in question. Don't expect them to have office files to hand. Tailor this carefully to the specific job or course each time. Include also basic data about yourself, including:
    • the dates when your degree began and ended
    • the number of years the referee has known you
    • the modules you studied and the marks you were awarded
    • your predicted degree grade (if you are still at the university) or the grade you were awarded (if you've left)
    • the CV you are sending to the employer or course director
    • any background information about the job or course for which you are applying.
    The more relevant information you can send, the better: basically, we need a dossier on you.
  10. It's also wise to state explictly that you don't mind your information being kept on file by your referee, since we don't want to feel inhibited by the Data Protection Act.
  11. Remind us of what you are like (or were like) as a student. What interested you in your studies? Did you contribute to class discussions? Can your remember some particular discussions or assignments that you found particularly interesting? Why do you think this particularly appealed to you? Did we publish any of your work online? Did you ever assist us with our own research? What do you feel you gained from your studies?
  12. Good psychology would suggest that it would be wise to refer to something you did in the module(s) you studied with your referee!
  13. Give some examples which illustrate the kinds of things that may be expected in your reference, with specific evidence, including:
    • reliability and timekeeping (e.g. what percentage of your assignments were submitted on time; what percentage of lectures did you attend; did you miss any appointments; were your library loans returned on time?)
    • honesty/integrity/trustworthiness (did you hold any positions of trust, e.g. in relation to money entrusted to you?)
    • communication skills (did you do any academic or non-academic work which highlighted these?)
    • teamwork (in both academic and non-academic contexts, where did you show the ability to work as a good team member?)
    • ability to work unsupervised (e.g. did you do a dissertation or some other independent project?)
    • organisational skills (did you do any successful work in which you were heavily involved in organising things?)
    • job- or course-related skills (relating to the specific demands of the post or role you are applying for)
  14. Check (ideally on the phone) whether your referee is in the country and available (e.g. not too busy) to write your reference at the precise time when it is needed. I have often returned from trips away to find that reference requests have arrived in my absence and it is then too late to write them.
  15. It is your responsibility to chase up your references (including checking directly with your referees that they've been able to write one in good time). In my case, being very busy and quite forgetful, I don't mind being reminded several times that you need my reference and when you need it by! Note that occasionally (perhaps when unable to get references on time) employers chase up references themselves some time after interviews.
  16. Once a referee has written one reference for you the chances are that it will be easier to get another one from then (based on previous ones).
  17. Ideally, the only people you ask for references should be people who genuinely know you very well. If they feel that they hardly know you they are not likely to be able to write an effective reference for you. If I don't remember you I can't write a reference for you - so make sure that I do know and remember your name and face for a start but if that's all I know about you I won't be able to write a reference. How well do you know your referee? If you don't know them very well then they probably don't know you very well either, so either get to know them or choose someone who knows you (and whom you know) better! You need to cultivate a social relationship with potential referees over as long a time as possible. While you are still in the university, going for an informal chat now and then over a coffee or a beer is strongly advised. We deal with hundreds of students a year and you need to get us to remember you for the right reasons! Also, you need to know them well enough for them to consider letting you have their mobile or home phone number.
  18. After you've left the institution, it remains essential to stay in touch (even if your referee doesn't have time to reply to emails). Keep us updated (at least when you need references) on what you've been up to since you were with us.
  19. If you visit the town after you've left, try to arrange to see those of us you might like to write a reference or who have already written references for you.
  20. If you haven't seen your referee for some time, it's wise to send a recent snapshot! Remember, over several years we may have taught thousands of students. Could you remember thousands of friends?
  21. Do not depend on a single individual - like students, staff come and go. Try to have a 'reserve' list of referees.
  22. In asking someone to be one of your referees, you are asking for a big favour. Remember this if I decline to write a reference for you on a particular occasion when I am very busy. No one is obliged to agree to be a referee for you. That doesn't mean that referees expect any reward, but do make it clear that you're grateful for their assistance. Do not act in a way that suggests that you assume that the person you are asking will write you a reference, and never ever list someone as a referee without first having obtained their permission.

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This page has been accessed times since 4th April 2006.