Jonathan Rose

Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University

Letters of Reference

Posted January 29th, 2015

For years, like my other faculty colleagues,I have had many requests for letters of reference. Most of the time they are for some post-secondary education like grad school, law school or college.

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Source: Joel Penner, “Paper Weaving” Used under Creative Commons licence. 

I’m not sure if students have a sense of what is required for a letter of reference.  Some take a long time to write and I take writing them seriously so want to say the best things I can about our students.

At one point I gave a talk on tips for asking for reference letters which might be helpful for you to read prior to asking me for one.

In general, you should ask the faculty member with whom you have had your highest grade and knows you in the most diverse learning environments (like a lecture and a seminar).  It’s important for the reference writer to be able to say something about your verbal and written work.  Seminars are the best place to demonstrate your oral contributions in class and because of that, your seminar instructors normally should be your first choice.  If there are any extra-ordinary reasons that might explain your grade in that course, it’s also useful to remind your reference writer of them.

If you are applying to a program that requests a research plan, your referees should be able to comment on them so that means asking referees who teach and research in the area you want to go into.  If you are planning on doing a MA in political theory, be sure at least one of your references work in that area.  Ideally, they should all be from the field you wish to pursue but I realize that this is not usually possible.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, give your referee a lot of time to complete it.  Being asked to write a letter the week it is due does not speak well about your judgement or organizational abilities — two characteristics on which we are often asked to comment.

Most of the above things are tips and should be seen as guidelines and not hard and fast rules.  The important thing is to exercise good judgement, give yourself (and your reference) lots of time and think carefully about what your referee adds to your application.

If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to write them below.  Good luck with the applications!

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