by Ellen Bourhis Nolan

Picture yourself walking by a beautiful apple tree. You spot a juicy fruit at its peak dangling from a limb. You can pick it then but choose to come back for it. By the time you come back it’s started to wither. References or recommendations are a lot like fruit: better when obtained sooner, when still involved or just finished a class or job, rather than later. If you wait too long, they will not remember how well you did in their class or job. Even if they do, it will likely not be as vivid as now.

When requesting a reference, there are often a few obstacles to overcome. Often students feel bad asking. Don’t!  If it’s faculty, part of their responsibility is to write letters for graduate schools and/or jobs. That’s what they get paid the big bucks for! If a supervisor, you likely did a good job and helped them to achieve their objectives, so they are happy to write a letter.

Another reason is the student may not know them that well but have no one else they know better. Give them the option to decline by asking, “Would you be willing to write a letter of reference for me?”

Once they have agreed, send an email with what you would like to see included. Is it for a graduate program? If so, what program and degree? Is it for a job? What is the job? If for both, or you are uncertain what program or job, let them know what you are considering so they have a general idea. Include pertinent information in this email, even if you believe they know it, such as doing research with them, or involvement on campus. While they may remember you did research with them, they may not remember what the topic was if you were one of several students they mentored. Attach a copy of your resume so they can see what you have done beyond their class/job.

Of special significance is that graduate schools typically do not want you to see these letters. They want to be sure the writer has provided a candid assessment of a student’s true abilities. So consider opening an on-line file at, a secure document storage site that, for a small fee ($19.00), can store and send letters ($6.00 to each destination). You will also be able to see when they have arrived and send to multiple destinations in just a few clicks, so I think it’s worth the money.

Finally, give your writers plenty of time to get these letters in. If you have done this and still no letter, nudge gently if needed. Your acceptance may depend upon it!

So be timely and fearless in your quest for the perfect fruit, meaning the perfect reference. Feel free to call me for more information on the topic.