How to Ask for References

If you’re applying to a professional school in Canada – such as medicine, law, or dentistry – you’ll likely have to submit a few  references. Two or three professional references and/or academic references are typically required, though the exact number differs between program and universities. 

You should be able to find the exact number and type of references required on the program’s website. For example, the website of Ivey’s MBA program states that applicants need to submit two professional references. On each program’s website, you should also be able to determine the type of reference required as there are a few different formats they can take, such as reference letters, questionnaires, or even phone calls.

For example, if you’re applying to any Ontario medical schools, you can find the questions your referees will have to answer on OMSAS’s referee requirements page. If you can’t find this information easily for other programs, don’t be afraid to reach out to the admissions office! They’ll be happy to help sort out any confusion. Having this information is helpful when you’re reaching out to your referees and giving them descriptions of your skill set as well as past activities and experiences. You can make sure to give them the information that will help them effectively answer the questions. 

What are reference letters used for? Why are they such an important part of the application process?  

The point of a reference, whether it be in a letter, a phone call, or an assessment form, is for admissions committees to get an idea of what you are like in a professional setting  by getting first-hand accounts. 

Laurier’s postdoctoral admission page explains the different insights and perspectives they receive  from different references. They explain that an academic reference gives them an idea of your potential and level of motivation to enter their program but a professional reference can provide more insight into whether or not you possess the aptitude and motivation necessary to excel in their field.   

Selecting your references 

Regardless of whether you’re looking for professional or academic references, there is a set of criteria you should fill. McGill describes the right reference as someone who…

  • Knows you and appreciates your work
  • Can give a detailed account of your abilities 
  • Has supervised you directly 
  • You know has something good to say about your work, personality, and teamwork skills 
  • Is a key figure in, or familiar with the field you’re applying to 

Most importantly, you must be certain that a reference will  give a glowing recommendation and speak highly of you. If you think they might only have a lukewarm opinion of you, it would be best to seek out a different reference. A glowing recommendation will really make you stand out as someone who would be a benefit to the program. It would also show the admissions committee members that you stood out from your peers in the workplace by demonstrating a strong work ethic.

It’s also best to select people you’ve worked with recently. These kinds of references hold more weight as the information they provide is more reliable as they can speak to your current skill set, work ethic, and personal characteristics. 

Even though you only need two or three references, you should have a list of about four or five people who you believe would be able to provide an enthusiastic and thorough reference. You should always have a few back-ups in case you can’t contact any of your first choices or in case anyone is unable to provide a reference. 

You should start making a list of potential references long before your submission deadlines so that you can ensure they have plenty of time to prepare and so you can submit your application on time. In fact, we highly suggest you plan to submit all of your application materials before their allotted deadlines. 

This will give you a little extra wiggle room just in case you need additional time. And, in the case of programs that conduct rolling admissions – which means they review applications as soon as they receive them and reply to applicants immediately – the sooner you submit your application, the sooner you’ll find out if you were accepted. Moreover, some programs have limited spots, so submitting your application early might increase your odds of acceptance. 

Reaching out to potential referees

You should reach out to your potential referees about three months before you plan on submitting your application. This  gives them plenty of notice and referees who have to write a letter or answer a series of questions will have the necessary time to plan, write, and edit their work. If any of the people you reach out to are unable to provide a reference, reaching out this far in advance also gives you plenty of time to reach out to other potential referees. 

When asking for a reference, make sure that you’re matching your tone in this initial reference request email to your relationship with your potential referees. If you’re reaching out to someone with whom you have a strictly professional relationship or someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, you should write in a more formal tone. If it’s someone who you also have a personal relationship with, you can write in a slightly more familiar tone. When in doubt, err on the side of formality. 

Your initial reference request email should include…

  • What university and program this reference is for 
  • The format of the reference they have to provide (phone call, letter, questionnaire, etc.)
  • A timeline or deadline by which they have to provide the reference 
  • A brief reminder of where/when you worked with them 

Here’s a template to demonstrate the tone and content of this initial email: 

Hello [referee’s name],

I hope you’re doing well. How is the team at [referee’s place of business]?

I am reaching out today because I am applying for [program] at [university name]. The application includes [number] references and I’d love to include you as a referee, if you’re willing. 

 I thought of you because [ways that you worked together] and I believe that you would be able to speak to my [key skills or characteristics the admissions committee is looking for]. 

[University name] requires referees to [what they need to do to provide the reference]. I am aiming to submit my application by [date]. 

Please let me know whether you would be willing to provide a reference. If so, I will provide you with additional details about my skill set and past experiences to help simplify the process for you. 

Thank you for your time,

[Your Name]

Once they confirm that they can provide a reference, you should follow up immediately, thanking them and forwarding any relevant information that will inform them of what kind of candidates the program is looking for and anything that will help them better understand your background. This should include…

  • Your resumé
  • Your unofficial academic transcript 
  • Relevant supplementary application documents such as personal essays 
  • Any questions they have to answer or information they have to include in their reference
  • Instructions on how to submit the reference 
  • The link to the program’s website 

You should also include a document that highlights the following: 

  • Your main achievements, skills and experiences 
  • How these have prepared you for the program to which you’re applying 
  • Why you’re applying to the program in the first place 
  • A brief description of each program/school’s values and mission 

This may seem like an excessive amount of information to provide your referee, but it’ll actually help them answer every question in a way that includes examples from your personal life, volunteer work, and employment history. This information will give your referee’s answers more context and depth, and it will help them better understand your motivations for applying to the program, which will be reflected in the way they complete your reference. 

When requesting references from professors, or even from your supervisor at work, always make sure to include an unofficial copy of your transcripts and take the time to explain any anomalies, such as any exceptionally low grades or any time you took off.  They need to have the full picture to be able to provide an accurate reference. This is important even for non-academic references because it’ll give them an idea of how you were able to balance good grades with your extracurriculars, volunteer work, and professional experiences.

Always make sure to ask if there’s anything else you can provide that will make their referral process easier. Provide the contact information at which you can most easily be reached in case they have any questions. And make sure you’re regularly checking your email or phone in case they do reach out. 

Plan to send another follow-up email about two weeks before you want to submit your application, once again checking in to see if they require any additional information to make their referral process easier. 

You should reach out to thank your referees twice more:

  • When you submit your application
  • When you hear back from the university with their decision

It’s good etiquette to tell your referees when you hear back from the university just so you can close the loop and they can receive closure on the process. 

If you think these are individuals from whom you’ll request references later on for academic or professional purposes, make sure to keep in touch over the course of the following years! There aren’t any recommended check points, but reach out every once in a while to see how they’ve been, what they’ve been working on, and to inform them of your own progress. 

And with that, you’re ready to start the process of selecting your referees and reaching out to them! 

If you have any lingering questions about references, reach out or book a free consultation to  speak to one of our experts today! Whether you’re applying for medicine, MBA, law school, dentistry, or a different program entirely, we’ve got the answers to all of your application questions.

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