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How to Get a Great Academic Reference Letter

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How to Get a Great Academic Reference Letter

Jul 24, 2022Date Published
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When applying for your dream university, you’re trying to make the best possible impression. You’re highlighting your strengths, skills, and abilities in things like your statement of purpose and CV. And while these are very important elements of any application package, universities understand that they’re a bit subjective. This is why universities often ask for letters of reference or recommendation! These are formal pieces of correspondence from someone who knows you in an academic (or sometimes, professional) capacity, who tell the university why you’re a good fit for their program. From a professional with experience and expertise, universities get a more objective view of you as a student and candidate. So, what do you need to know about getting an academic reference letter or letter of recommendation?

How to Tell Apart a Reference Letter from a Letter of Recommendation

Often, you may come across the terms “reference letters” and “letters of recommendation” in use interchangeably. And while they serve a similar purpose, they’re not quite the same! An academic reference letter would typically be a general overview of your merits as a student. You’d usually be able to apply to several programs and schools using the same reference letters. On the other hand, a letter of recommendation has more detail. It’s a personal and direct endorsement of you as a great candidate for a specific program at a specific school! You may be able to collect and send in a reference letter yourself as part of your application. A letter of recommendation usually goes directly from your referee to the university!

Who Can Write an Academic Letter of Recommendation

Now that we have the definitions out of the way – who writes these letters? As the “academic” in the name suggests, a teacher or professional at your school or university will be your referee. But that doesn’t mean you should ask any teacher or professor for your letter of recommendation. To boost your chances of putting together a strong application, you want to approach someone who:

  • Knows you well – academically and in terms of your personality, work ethic, values, extracurricular achievements, ambitions, etc.
  • Will give you a glowing recommendation to the university – you don’t want to approach someone with a neutral or negative impression of you
  • Will be mindful of deadlines and not delay sending the reference or recommendation letter for the student
  • Is an expert in their field as well as, ideally, an expert in the field you want to specialise in


A teacher or professor who meets the above criteria can put together the most persuasive and detailed academic reference letter for you. An impersonal, neutral letter, which doesn’t add anything to your application not already covered by your resume and statement of purpose, may actually work against you. And of course, you don’t want to get a recommendation letter from someone who doesn’t have a good impression of you. It’s best to connect with someone who can give an accurate and positive overview of your performance academically. 

How to Ask for an Academic Reference Letter?

Some universities will ask, during the application process, for contact details of your referees so they can request a recommendation letter for students from their professor directly. At other times, you’ll have to give your referee the contact details of the university. Whichever way it goes, you must ask your chosen lecturer first whether they’re willing to be your referee. Maybe they have too many reference letters to write already. Perhaps they feel they’re not the best person to discuss in detail your strengths as a student. Maybe they have so much on their plate that a last-minute reference letter wouldn’t be a quality one.


It’s important to check with your teachers first whether they’re available and willing to write an academic reference letter for you. They might need time to put their thoughts together and draft a good piece. If they get a recommendation letter request out of the blue, they may not be able to craft a persuasive one at such short notice. This is especially the case because you’ll want to furnish your referee with information about your academic and other achievements before they get to writing. The product of a quickly cobbled-together academic reference letter for a student is likely not going to be the best. Plus, your referee might not appreciate you putting them on a spot like that. And remember, you want to stay on their good side to get a great letter!

Shortlisting and Contacting Your Referees

So, when you realise that an academic reference letter or recommendation letter is part of your application, shortlist your preferred referees. Then, reach out to them personally to ask for their help! You can do this in person, visiting them after class or in their office or teacher’s lounge. You could also draft up a polite email requesting their help! Whatever you do, make sure you do this early on, so you give both yourself and your referees enough time to work with.

What Can I Do to Make Sure I Get a Good Academic Reference Letter?

By its very nature, a letter of recommendation or reference letter is a part of your application that you can’t put together yourself. So how can you make sure you get a solid and persuasive one to strengthen your application?

Choose the Right Referee for You

For starters, the best chance you have is choosing the right referee. We already discussed what makes a great referee earlier in the article – so who springs to mind when you read that? Which of your teachers or professors do you have the best rapport with? If you’re applying for an academic reference letter for master’s, is there a professor who oversaw one of your best projects during your bachelor’s degree? Is there someone you worked with as an assistant teacher or research assistant? Is there a lecturer you can think of who really knows and recognises your academic potential and ambitions, your personality and drive? And – importantly – is this lecturer invested in your growth as a student? Think about which of your teachers have supported your development and commended your success. These individuals make the best referees because they know your value as a student and want to see you succeed.


Supply Your Referee with the Relevant Information

One of the best ways you can help your referee write a letter that aligns with your application is by giving them the relevant information. Give your referee a copy of your statement of purpose and resume. This gives them a little insight into your mind, your goals and motivation for applying to the school and program of your choice. These documents paint a more complete picture of your achievements and abilities as a student beyond your referee’s classroom too. Your referee can then create a broad and overarching argument for you as a great candidate, based on facts about your experience and academic standing as well as their personal observations and insight.

Keep Your Referee in the Loop 

As much as teachers and instructors are essential members of our society, they’re also humans. And they’re humans who have to deal with classrooms full of students, heaps of assignments to grade, and emails flooding their inbox. It’s in your best interest, therefore, to keep your referee in the loop about deadlines rather than leaving it all up to them. 


Let them know at the time you’re requesting a reference letter when you want to apply. Pro tip: set your personal application deadline before the university’s deadline. Lots of universities accept applications on a first-come, first-serve basis. You could miss out on your chance to score one of the limited seats in your program by applying too late. And you don’t want to be in a situation where your application is good to go, but the reference letter isn’t in yet either.


This is why it helps to be transparent when you’re requesting the letter by letting your referee know exactly when you want to apply. They can then work out whether they have the time to help you. If they don’t, you can negotiate a different deadline, as long as it’s not pushing it too close to the actual application deadline.


When you’re about to send your application in – if the reference letter submission is separate – let your referee know. Then, when you’ve sent in your application, give your referee another heads-up to expect the university’s request for a referral or recommendation letter. 


Keeping referees in the loop doesn’t mean badgering them every day, though. When choosing your referee, it helps to consider who will be the most timely in responding as well. If you have a lecturer who has a reputation for missing emails or grading assignments late, there’s a chance your academic reference letter will face delays too.


What Makes a Great Academic Reference Letter?

While you’re not the one writing the letter, by knowing what makes a good one you’re able to choose the right referee and give them the right resources. So, let’s break it down, shall we?


An Introduction

A fairly standard part of the process, but an introduction from your referee can carry a lot of weight in your application. This is where your referee will discuss their teaching and academic experience, credentials, how long they’ve been teaching, and so on. All this lends weight to their endorsement of you! 

The Body

The body of the letter tackles the actual recommendation part of your recommendation letter. Over here, your referee overviews your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, or any other standout areas of performance. It’s a good idea to discuss these things with your referee, so they have more detail and insight into these items beyond what you list in your resume. They can get a more personal look into your motivations, goals, and so on. 


For a general academic reference letter, your referee will highlight your strengths and potential as a student for any university program. If you’re applying within the same field across all your university choices, your referee can be more specific in their referral. They can specifically focus on traits and achievements that make you a good match for this field.


If your referee is writing a letter of recommendation, have them look into your statement of purpose for the university and program you’re applying to. They can look through the course description and get an idea of the type of student this program is looking for. A great recommendation letter will tie in your accomplishments, skills, and abilities to the program itself. It’ll show universities that you’re the right match for their course rather than just a promising student. 


Good reference letters also include personal anecdotes from your referees. They can discuss a time they felt impressed by your achievements, or a moment you stood out as a great student. What makes this referee confident in commending you for this program and university? A reference letter complements your statement of purpose by showing universities who you are beyond your grades and awards. 

The Conclusion

If you’re requesting a general academic reference letter, the conclusion would feature a vote of confidence that you’re an asset to any university. For letters of recommendation for a specific university, it’s a great idea to talk about the program and university in particular, and how and why you’re going to be a wonderful addition to that community. An impactful closing statement rounds off a great referral letter.


Other Considerations

For general academic reference letters, a standard “To whom it may concern” may work. If you’re sending reference or recommendation letters to specific universities, it’s good to address the department, admissions office, etc. directly. Look into who the letter is going to if this information is available.


A formal document like this must, of course, follow a formal letter template. Not all lecturers have experience writing reference letters. This is something to consider when you’re trying to decide on your referees too. That’s not to say someone who has never written a reference letter can’t ever write one. It just means that additional research might be necessary on both your and your referee’s parts. The letter format, the appropriate length, etc., can all play into the credibility of their recommendation! Checking out academic reference letter samples for master’s, for example, may give someone who has only written reference letters for undergraduate students an idea of what makes a great letter for graduate entry students. 

Our Final Thoughts on Securing a Great Academic Reference Letter

An academic reference letter or letter of recommendation isn’t something you write yourself. That doesn’t mean you have no control over the quality of the letter though! By putting careful thought into choosing your referee, giving them all the necessary information, and staying in touch with them, you can make sure you get a solid reference letter to add weight to your application.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are reference letters and letters of recommendation the same thing?

Technically, no, they’re not exactly the same thing. A reference letter is a more general letter outlining your merits as a prospective student. You’d be able to send the same reference letter to a bunch of universities. A letter of recommendation, though, is typically specific to one program and university. It goes into more detail, highlights relevant aspects of your academic career that make you a good fit for this school, and makes a case for why you’re the perfect fit for this program in particular. Do make sure you look into which of the two your university is asking for! Sometimes, a school may use these terms interchangeably. Look into reference letter samples for this school or any details they may list about the requirements for this document, e.g. length, contents, etc.

Who can provide an academic letter of recommendation?

For academic letters of recommendation, a teacher, lecturer, or professor is usually the person you go to. Generally, it’s best to reach out to someone who knows you well from teaching and mentoring you. A good referee would be someone who:

  • Knows your academic performance and ambitions well
  • Is an expert within their field
  • Specialises in a field related to what you want to study 
  • Has a good rapport with you
  • Is a great communicator who stays in the loop

How do I ask for an academic reference letter?

Before you begin applying, make sure you reach out to your chosen referees with your request. Not all teachers and professors may have the time or the ability to write a great letter for you. You can ask them in person after class, in their office, or in the teacher’s lounge. You can also write to them, sending your request through a polite email. Make sure they know when you’re planning to apply by, so they can get to work on the letter accordingly. In some cases, you’ll need the reference or recommendation letter before you can apply. In others, the university will reach out to your referees for their letters after receiving your application. Make sure you’re on top of the requirements and that you’re keeping your referee in the loop too! Give them a heads-up when you’re about to apply so they can keep an eye out for emails from your target university.