Building relationships for academic reference letters

You’ve probably realized by now that you can go from term to term, and possibly your entire degree, without ever really interacting with your professors.

Before and after graduation, you may be looking to apply for academic programs or research positions. Most of these opportunities will require at least one reference letter – schools will definitely need at least one if not two academic reference letters.

The most common types of reference letters for these experiences are academic reference letters. Therefore, it is important to cultivate a connection with your professors in the courses you are passionate about or put more effort into ensuring you have someone who can write you an academic reference letter.

It can be easy to only occasionally say “hello” to your teacher when you walk into class. However, this may not be your best strategy. Although it may seem daunting to get more involved, remember that your teachers are there to help and interact with you. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand or inquire with them during office hours; you might be surprised to find that they really have your best interests at heart!

Here are some tips to help make the academic reference letter process a little easier.

1. Build relationships with your professors

It’s not just about befriending your teacher; it is also about creating a professional academic network and learning how to leverage this network to your advantage.

An easy way to start building a stronger professional relationship with your teacher is to show more interest in their class. Whether it’s office hours, emails regarding course material, or thoughtful questions that go beyond the curriculum and show a deeper level of engagement, you’d be surprised how quickly they remember you – fewer students go the extra mile than you would think.

A common misconception about asking a professor for an academic recommendation letter is that you must have one of your highest grades in their class. While it’s important to have done well in the classroom, it’s also about showing growth. If you have been actively participating throughout the semester, your professor will be able to provide a much clearer description of who you are as a student. Graduate schools and college jobs will see your transcript; they don’t need your teacher to check your grade. They want to see a demonstration of the commitment, hard work and character you have shown.

There are also ways to show commitment outside of class. If you work as a teaching assistant (TA) or research assistant (RA) for a professor who taught you, your professor can use this work interaction to complement his experience with you academically! You don’t even have to have them as a supervisor. These posts show a dedication to the academic field you are studying, can be a great conversation starter with your professor, and can also be something to mention in their letter.

However, it is important to keep in mind that these positions are also competitive. Although information on TA positions is faculty-based, there are many resources on how to get involved in undergraduate research at UBC.

2. The right way to ask for a letter of recommendation

If you still have a class with the professor you need an academic reference letter from, make an appointment to ask them in person rather than by email. If you no longer have classes with the teacher, include more background information in your email.

Your request must be:

  • Early: Teachers are often stuck under a big pile of class work and their research. Apply at least one month before the reference submission deadline. The earlier you submit your application, the more they have to think about the best letter they could write for you.
  • Polite: Be respectful, introduce yourself again if it’s been a while and explain why you asked them to be your reference. Ideally, you should ask a professor who knows you well and is in a similar field to the one you are applying for. (Bonus points if you were able to work with them too!) Include key details about the program or job you are applying for, such as program name, requirements, and academic reference letter submission deadline.
  • Official: Writing an email can be tricky no matter how many times you’ve done it. I still spend far too much time writing and editing the emails I send to my professors. Make sure you have a clear subject line (include the class name if you’re still there) and use their correct title. If you are unsure of their title, “Dear Professor [last name]” is always a safe choice.
  • Informative: Even if you know your teacher pretty well, chances are they won’t know about all the amazing experiences you’ve had outside of class. Include a copy of your resume and a short statement explaining why you are applying to the program or position for which you are requesting a letter of recommendation. The more information you give them, the more they should write.

3. Remind and thank your teacher

If it’s been a few weeks since you last asked your teacher — and they agreed — but they’ve been away since then, it’s more than okay to send a polite reminder. Once the professor lets you know that your letter of reference has been submitted, be sure to express your gratitude to your professor.

If you are accepted into the program to which you applied or if you receive a job offer, let your professor know. A professor who wrote me a letter of reference for a work-based learning position was thrilled to hear that I got the job, and I’m sure your professor would be too!

Don’t be afraid to contact your teachers. They’re there to help, and you might be surprised at the impact your engagement with them can have beyond the classroom.