During an application process for jobs, internships or graduate school, you may be asked for references or letters of recommendations. What exactly is a reference? Whom should you ask? How do you ask? Here are some insights into securing yourself a strong reference or letter of recommendation. 

References vs. Letters of Recommendation


References are people who can speak about your work to prospective employers. Prospective employers typically ask for three to five references to speak to about your qualifications. The prospective employer will usually call or email your reference to obtain information late in the interview process, after one or several interviews. 

letters of recommendation

For graduate school, some teaching positions, and fellowships you will typically be asked for at least two letters of recommendation. Your recommenders should be people who can speak to your academic interests or abilities as well as your work ethic. Therefore, it is typically recommended to ask at least one professor who can address  your capacity to perform at the graduate level and complete an advanced degree.

Whom should you ask?

References and recommenders can be former employers, internship supervisors, volunteer supervisors, TAs, RAs, professors, and more. First, identify people who know you and your work well. Did you connect with a professor in class or through a research experience on campus? Is there a TA, RA, or previous supervisor who can speak to your work ethic?

If you have time before needing to turn in the reference or recommendation letter, you can begin to develop a relationship before you build your application. For example, visit professors during their office hours to speak with them, send an old boss a message to check in with them, or ask for a meeting with your RA.

Think of what skills and qualities you want to convey to an employer or admissions committee. Ask people who will speak highly of you and can provide substantive examples to support your candidacy. Your references or recommenders, taken altogether, should be able to communicate your qualifications, motivation, and potential for success.

Can your current supervisor serve as a reference?

In the case of job applications, employers may request to speak with your current supervisor. However, if your current supervisor does not know you are searching for a new job, be sure to inform your prospective employer of the situation or avoid using them as a reference. Prospective employers will often wait until an offer is extended to speak with your current supervisor. If you feel that you can receive a better reference from someone else in the organization, then ask the person who will speak positively about your work.

How can I ensure I obtain a good reference or recommendation?

The best way to ensure a good reference or recommendation is to prepare the people who have agreed to serve as your references. In addition to providing your reference with an updated copy of your resume, you should inform them of a few things, including:

  • What position or program you’re seeking
  • Who will be contacting them or if they will be prompted through phone or email
  • What the employer or program is looking for in a candidate
  • How you believe your background and qualifications fit the opportunity 

Plan Ahead

How to Ask for a Reference

Before listing an individual as a reference, you must ask for their permission by email or in-person, or the form of communication you usually use with that person. You can let your reference know that you are starting a job or internship search.  When you are at the interview stage you may offer to send your resume, cover letter, and the job description.

Your references will usually be asked two types of questions:

  • Fact-based questions including nature and length of time they’ve known you, job title, and duties if applicable

  • Professional questions about your reliability, integrity, interests, and general work ethic.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for Graduate School Applications

To ask for a graduate school letter of recommendation, you should think ahead and give your recommenders ample time (several weeks are preferable). You can also ask for letters of recommendation through email or in-person. 

Your recommender will likely be asked to speak to:

  • Your academic interests 

  • Your ability to succeed in graduate school and contribute to your program 

  • Your overall abilities and character

If you are not sure that a professor will remember you, provide as much information as possible, including how you know each other (e.g., the class you took), the grade you got, why you are interested in the graduate program, what you hope to bring to the program, and if applicable, how it supports your career goals. Offer to send your personal statement.

You should only provide a reference list to your prospective employer when asked. Your reference list should be typed and should include the following:

  • Your name and contact information on the top
  • A list of your references, including their names, titles, organization names, work addresses, phone numbers (including extensions), and email addresses.