References: Tips for Our Students

Part of being a mentor.

February 18, 2015

We are a few months into the new calendar year, and I am thinking about the wide array of letters that I have written since September. I wrote more than one dozen for one student, and at my last count, I was approaching fifty letters by the year’s end. I have also served as a reference for many of my students. I am thinking about the advice that I give them and what I ask for to help me write a supportive, focused letter. I also want to proofread the statement of intent. I know that some faculty do not want to do this or do not have the time. If you are in this situation, direct the student to the campus writing center or other offices. It is my experience that most students need another set of eyes to review that important statement of intent.

I need to explain something important to this post and my philosophy: I am a former undergraduate advisor for my home department. In that role, I would help students with figuring out their majors, minors, and give them advice about their next steps for courses, internships, graduate school, and refer them to other campus services. I am also a teaching, tenure-line faculty, so these roles influence the amount of face time and overall interactions that I have with my students. My job is not to merely teach, but to also mentor. And frankly, I am glad that I do not have to live under the “publish or perish” expectations. I view my role as a hands-on mentor to my students - especially when they are looking at what is next: life after their degree. This post speaks to how I help them with letters and references.

What do I need from my students? I ask for one email with everything that I need: due dates, a resume,  a copy of their letter of intent, a list of courses taken with me, and the marks earned. I also want to know which universities require I use their online portal and which require the printed out copy of the assessment. All of this makes it easier for me to organize my time and the writing of the letter. I also ask for a 7-10 day email reminder about the letter’s due date. I also ask the student about their other references, as I want to make sure that they have a tenured professor write a letter, if possible. I know that with the army of contingent faculty working that this is not always a possibility; however, the graduate admissions committee might look at the array of names and wonder why the professor who specializes in a particular sub-field was not a reference.

When I serve as a job reference for a student, I want as much information as I will need to give a good reference. There is no statement of intent, but I do want to see their resume and their LinkedIn Account. Some might do a double take and think: LinkedIn? If the former student is looking for non-academic work, I let them know that they should have an active, up to date LinkedIn account. I am on year two of getting feedback from prospective employers that they want to see my former students’ LinkedIn account, or commenting on why the student has not updated her or his LinkedIn account in a year or so. My advice here is that we encourage our students to curate a positive digital footprint, and for some, this includes getting on Academia.edu, LinkedIn, About.Me, WordPress, and other platforms related to their area of work.

Wish your student good luck. Many of our students need our help, and for some, it is not easy for them to ask for the help or even to ask for a letter of reference. Remind your student to inform you about the status of their graduate school acceptances and job prospects. It is good to share this information with the department or advising unit, as it helps demonstrate student success post-graduation or post courses. We live in an era in which we are expected to demonstrate why our department matters or the significance of higher education, and we need to celebrate our students’ achievements. I know that I am hands-on as a mentor and supporter of my students and these tips will not work for all; however, in my role as a mentor, coach, and sponsor, this is how I triage letters and references.


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