As you move along in your career, academic or otherwise, you will need to ask teachers you have had for reference letters.
Here are a few basic tips:
1. Ask professors with whom you have had a conversation. They should remember you. Making yourself memorable, in a good way, will help you later on. Come to office hours; ask questions!
2. A reference letter is almost always confidential. This means that when you ask for a reference, you have every right to ask whether or not someone could write you a good reference. They have every right to say no.
3. As these exchanges generally take place via email, if your professor agrees to write a reference, you should be ready to respond with exactly when and how the reference must be submitted. This means the deadline, the address if you want it mailed, a website if it must be submitted online, or instructions for it to be left for you to include in your own application package.
Give clear instructions. They have a lot of references to write and will appreciate concise instructions and advance warning. If you leave things to the last minute, they could easily mention this in your reference!
4. Ask at least two weeks before the deadline!
5. Ensure that the deadline is a postmarked deadline. (Sometimes the deadline is effectively sooner, because everything has to arrive by the deadline).
6. Even if your relationship with the teacher/professor has been jovial, friendly, or casual, a reference request should be more formal. References require a certain formality, and the request should reflect this seriousness.
Here is a sample request:
Dear [ ],
I’m writing because I have decided to apply for [ ________ ]. I am applying because I feel that [ why you’d be good at it, why you want it!]. I wondered if you felt that you could write me a strong reference in support of my application.
The first deadlines are for [Name of Scholarship] (October 13 at 4pm) and [Name of Scholarship] (October 22).
If you felt you had time for such letter writing, I’d be so grateful. I would be able to send you my scholarship proposal immediately, and would get together all the necessary addresses by early next week.
Thank you so much,
[your forever devoted student, your name].
Reading your reference letters
Generally speaking, the only way you can read reference letters that have been written for you is after you have been accepted into a department. If the department has a policy of allowing students access to their files, you can probably read them. This is useful if, upon being accepted into a certain department, you decide to change your mind. You could ask the department secretary if you are permitted access to your file. If you are, you can usually sit with the secretary and read your reference letters to help you decide who to ask in the future. Always befriend the department secretary.
Some awards might permit you access as well. One scholarship I have come across gives the following warning to referrants:
The information you provide is for adjudication purposes only. It is retained in the applicant’s file and is protected by the federal or by corresponding provincial legislation. Federal legislation permits reviewer comments to be disclosed to the candidates, except for references to other persons and their identities, and except for the name and personal information of the reviewer. Provincial legislation may vary.