Letters of Reference

Many of my students ask me for letters of reference for graduate school applications, job interviews, or as a character reference. I am happy to help out with this! However, please read the following before asking for a reference.

Part 1: What is a Letter of Reference?

A letter of reference is a letter written on behalf of another person to support them in a chosen career or field of study. Most letters require:

  • (1) a written statement which supports the candidate, and;
  • (2) a “screening” questionnaire where the referee rates the candidate on a number of factors.

The goal for you, as a candidate, is to get the strongest possible letters of reference to support your application.

A “strong” letter of recommendation is one where the referee is able to clearly, and specifically (i.e. with examples), address the things the particular application is seeking. This usually means that the student being a high performer, who has built a solid reputation with the referee, and has demonstrated achievements or activities which the referee can refer to in their letter of support.

  • The point of a letter of reference is for the writer to attest to your attributes and experience. This should be in the context of your course of study.
    • For graduate school, this usually focuses on your suitability for academic research and performance in an academic environment.
    • For business school, this usually focuses on your teamwork skills, professionalism, and performance under pressure of when facing obstacles. They are also usually interested in demonstrated or potential managerial competency.
    • For professional employment or placement, this usually focuses on your personal attributes and position-relevant experience.
  • A letter is also useful to provide context to a transcript which might otherwise be missing. For example, missing a year of school.

Part 2: Should I Be Your Reference?

Choosing a reference letter writer is more than just picking a course you enjoyed, or someone you think would be willing to support you. The goal is to choose writer who can write you strong letters of support, which they can back up with specific examples.

  • Before you request a reference, consider whether I’m an appropriate person to use for the type of reference you need.
    • I can only speak to attributes and experiences I’ve personally been a party to. This means I may not be a good fit for all references.
      • For example, second-year courses are usually a bad fit because I usually can only explain your grade in my course. I can’t answer any very many other questions about your suitability for the position.
    • Ideally, we should also have some personal contact. I should recognize you, and be familiar with the kind of student and person you are.
  • It is usually a good idea that you have taken a course with me that involved a substantial research project or something similar.
    • For example, ECON 490 or 492 are excellent courses to write academic references regarding.
    • On the other hand, ECON 221 or 226 are usually not. The exception is if you did a special project or something beyond just the regular course work.
  • Academic referees are looking for strong recommendations from letter-writers. If you don’t think I can write you a strong letter, you should try and find another letter writer instead.
    • The more experience I have with you, the better the reference I can write!
    • Academic referees are also looking for students who have strong CVs. It is not worth asking for a letter of reference if you scored lower than a B+ in a particular course.
  • Generally, reference letters are confidential. Only with extenuating circumstances do I provide a generic non-confidential reference letter, especially for academic purposes. Ensure you waive your right to access when submitting your application.

⚠️ Important! I recommend that students who I have only taught in first or second-year courses do not use me as a reference. This is especially true of PhD programs and business schools. You will not be likely to succeed with my reference, and you would be better off identifying another letter writer.

To help you decide which courses would be a good letter of reference for, see the following table:

  • 🟢 means “definitely, yes” provided you meet the conditions below in the checklist
  • 🟡 means “maybe, depends.” In this case you should think carefully if the skills you’ve demonstrated and your achievement in the course would be suitable for the type of program you are applying for.
  • 🔴 means “probably not.” You’re not likely to succeed with my letter, if I write one, even if your grades are excellent. It would have to be a very unique and outstanding situation.
Course with meBusiness School Reference?Academic Reference?Graduate School?PhD Programs?
ECON 490, 421🟢🟢🟢🟡
ECON 398🟡🟢🟢🟡
ECON 326🟡🟢🟡🔴
ECON 221, 226, 102🔴🔴🔴🔴

Part 3: Reference Letter Checklist

Consider the following series of questions before requesting a letter of reference. If you answer “no” to any of these, you should consider a different letter writer.

  1. Have I taken a course with this person which was intermediate to advanced?
  2. Have I done a major project or other activity that is not just a routine assignment or exam?
  3. Did I earn a B+ or better in the course?
  4. Could this person give specific examples to support my skills or abilities?
  5. Is this person familiar enough with me for their opinion of my skills or abilities to be taken seriously?
  6. Could this person write me a strong letter of reference?
  7. Is there enough time before my deadline for this person to write me a letter?

If you can answer affirmatively to these questions, you should feel confident that you can request a letter of reference.

Part 4: Requesting Letters of Reference

If you’ve decided that I’d be a good fit, send write me an email at jonathan.graves@ubc.ca requesting a reference. Include the following details:

  1. Where you are applying, and to which programs, including (critically) deadlines for letter submission
    • If your application has a “rolling deadline” base your deadline on the next cohort.
    • It is very demanding to submit more than 5 applications for a single person; take this into consideration
  2. A copy of your Curriculum Vitae (or resume)
  3. A copy of your official or unofficial UBC transcript (and any other post-secondary institutions you’ve attended)
  4. A personal statement and any other items (e.g. cover letter, scholarship application) you will be submitting with your application.
  5. A list of people who will be also writing you letters (so I can make my letter more focused).
  6. Some comments about anything specific you’d like me to mention or focus on in my reference letter
    • This can be a good place to address gaps in your transcripts, or things that a reviewer might question. For example, why did you withdraw from this course in your senior year?

My turn-around time on letters of reference is usually a couple of weeks. I will let you know if I can supply you with a letter shortly after receiving your request. If you still haven’t received an update from me indicating the letter is complete two days before your deadline, please don’t hesitate to follow-up with me.
After you have received a response, please follow-up to ensure that I’ve sent them by the deadline! I’m very busy, and sometimes forget deadlines!

You can find my contact information at the bottom of this page!

🤖 Attack of the Robots!

Please don’t send me LLM-written solicitations for reference letters. These are trained and generated based on generic advice about reference letters, and contain (i) very little of your authentic voice, and your personality, and (ii) very few specific details about you, even if you include them. They are long, and poorly written – instead, remind me who you are, in your own words; not what an AI thinks you might sound like. For example this is a bad request and makes you sound bad:

🤖 I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to request a reference letter from you, as I believe your insights and guidance during my Econometrics 326 course in 1922 have been invaluable to my academic and professional development. Your teaching style and dedication to the subject matter were truly inspiring. Your ability to break down complex econometric concepts into digestible, understandable pieces made a significant impact on my learning experience. Your passion for the subject matter was evident in every lecture, and it motivated me to delve deeper into the world of econometrics. The knowledge and skills I acquired in your course have proved instrumental in my academic journey and have greatly influenced my career aspirations. As such, I am in the process of applying for various academic programs and internships where your reference would undoubtedly enhance my prospects. The knowledge and skills I acquired in your course have proved instrumental in my academic journey and have greatly influenced my career aspirations. As such, I am in the process of applying for various academic programs and internships where your reference would undoubtedly enhance my prospects. I kindly request that you provide me with a reference letter that highlights my performance in your Econometrics 326 course, our interactions, and any other insights you may have about my dedication and aptitude for the subject. Your endorsement would carry significant weight in my applications and would be greatly appreciated.🤖

Gross. Don’t do it. Be yourself.

(Last updated: 2023-10-26)