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Reference Letters: Form and FAQs

Most graduate and professional programs require letters of recommendation from undergraduate course instructors as part of a successful application. Full-time faculty members expect to write these letters of reference as part of their job, but they may receive dozens of requests each term and are not required to accept individual requests. Instructors who are adjunct faculty members or graduate students working as teaching fellows are not paid to write reference letters, though they may accept your request. Instructors may decline your request if they don’t know you very well, you haven’t given them enough notice, they have already written many letters of reference in a term, or their schedule doesn’t allow them adequate time. To lessen the letter-writing workload (and by extension, making the potential referee more likely to say ‘yes’ to your request), and to support the instructor in writing a strong reference letter for you, we encourage you to follow this guide.

Who to Ask

To decide who to ask you will need to:

  • Reflect on the skills and qualities valued by the program to which you are applying and map out the classes in which you’ve demonstrated these skills and qualities, including specific examples of instances when and how you’ve used them.
  • Provide examples that demonstrate your maturity, responsibility, determination, persistence in the face of adversity, and ability to learn from your mistakes.
  • Provide examples that demonstrate your ability to conduct independent research and scholarship, critically interpret a text, write, speak in public, manage your time, work on several projects at once, be creative, solve problems, and work both independently and collaboratively.
  • Describe experiences you have outside of the classroom (e.g., awards or honours received, contributions to the community, and work and volunteer experiences).
  • Identify the instructors who know you and your work best, and who teach courses where you’ve demonstrated the relevant skills and done well.

When to Ask

  • At least one month before the due date and ideally sooner. The more time the instructor has to write a letter the more likely they are to say yes.

How to Ask

Once you know who you are going to approach, speak to the instructor in person or compose a message outlining the following:

  • What course(s) you took with them and how they shaped your decision to apply for further study.
  • Why you want to apply to these programs and your short- and long-term goals.
  • What the reference letter entails (speak to length and criteria if possible) and the facets of your application you hope they will address, understanding that referees should focus on filling in gaps or elaborating on aspects of your profile that aren’t already addressed in your application.
  • When the reference letters are due.
  • How they should submit the letter and to whom it should be addressed.
  • You may also want to ask if the instructor is able to write a strong letter.

Once You Have Received a ‘Yes’

Submit the following to the referee:

  • A brief cover email thanking the instructor for agreeing to write for you and asking if they’d like a reminder just before the due date. Be sure to also include the following in the body of the email:
    • A reminder of the due date.
    • A link to the referee portal or information about where the letter should be sent.
    • A request to confirm that you have the instructor’s preferred contact details.
  • A complete Reference Letter Form: How to Ask for a Reference Letter FORM.docx
  • Resume or CV.
  • Statement of intent, and/or personal statement, and/or research proposal.
  • Unofficial transcripts.
  • Your preferred name and pronouns.

After the Instructor Submits the Reference Letter

  • Be sure to send a thank you to the instructor.
  • Many instructors also appreciate learning the outcome of your application and are willing to write another reference letter if your application is not successful. Writing the first reference letter always takes the most time and effort but additional reference letters, after the first, are much easier.

How to Email your Professors and TAs: A checklist

Step 1: Do you really need to send an email?

   Is your question particularly complex? It may be best to ask in person or during office hours.

   Is this question inappropriate to ask in person? If so, it is also inappropriate to ask via email.

   Can you find the answer to your question elsewhere? Read the course syllabus, check OnQ (announcements, discussion board, instruction sheets for assignments), and check lecture slides.

   If you can’t find the answer to your question, and it is something you’d feel comfortable saying to your professor or TA in person, then go ahead!

Step 2: Subject line

   Includes the course code.

   Includes your last name.

   Includes the general topic of your email.

Step 3: Addressing your email

   Uses formal writing conventions (e.g., ‘Dear Dr. Smith’, ‘Dear Instructor Smith’, or ‘Dear Mr./Ms./Mx. Smith’).

   Is addressed to the appropriate recipient (your TAs are often responsible for answering students’ questions).

   The recipient’s name is spelled correctly.

Step 4: The content of your email

   Paragraph/sentence 1: Introduces yourself (including your full name, student number, and the course you are taking), and the context of your email.

   Paragraph/sentence 2: Specifies why you are sending an email. Ensure your question is easily identified and understood, with all relevant information needed by the recipient.

   Paragraph/sentence 3: Elaborates on additional information/useful context.

Step 5: Signing off on your email

   Sign off with your formal regards, name, and contact information.

   If emailing from an iPhone or other mobile device, be sure to check that “sent from [x]” is not included in your email – this looks unprofessional. If possible, take the time to write your email from your laptop.

   Ensure you are sending your email from your Queen’s student email account. Spam filters will sometimes catch emails sent from external servers and may not make it to your intended recipient.

Step 6: Including any relevant attachments

   If you reference attaching a document, be sure to include it before you send your email.

Step 7: Proofreading and checking the “tone”

   Ensure that your email contains no typos or grammatical errors.

   Review for the “tone” of your email – ensure that it is professional and respectful. Don’t use slang, shorthand, colloquial language, all-capital letters or incomplete sentences. Avoid using contractions if possible.

Additional resources:

See Communicating with Professors and TAs on the Queen’s Student Academic Success Services (SASS) website: