Graduate school application guide: How to approach references

A sample email and tool to organize your request

Putting together a killer application for Graduate school requires a lot time you might as well add it into your schedule as a full course load. Researching about the programs, perfecting your letter of intent, and approaching references are just some of the larger tasks involved in this process. In this blog series of Applying to Graduate School, we share with you 3 quick tips along with a sample email and a tool that’s helped us keep our references organized and submitted on time!

Choose a reference who knows you well:

A professor who taught you a Health Promotion course three years ago, whom you’ve never spoken to is probably not a good choice (even if you are applying to a health promotion focused degree). It will show in their reference that they don’t really know you. That means, you need to start building those relationships early on. But if you are applying to grad school now, and need a reference now, that’s sort of impossible. In this case, brainstorm alternatives…supervisors at a lab you volunteered at, a TA you connected well with, manager at your volunteer job. Often schools may only need 1 of 3 references to come from an academia.

Make your initial request short and informative:

When you approach your reference (whether by email or in person), make sure to include some details which will give your reference an opportunity to get organized and plan accordingly. An email that looks like this is not going to get you far:

Instead, include minimal detail like what you are applying to, timelines, what they will need to do (i.e. write a letter, fill out a form), how many schools, and let them know you will provide more information in the next email, if they agree. Your email could look something like this (make sure to change the text in red to fit your application):

Get organized:

Your reference has a lot going on, so getting organized will make sure they are happy while they write you the reference (it’ll show in their letter)…and plus, the more organized you can get them, the more confident you will be that they will submit your reference on time.

Put together a package for your reference with the following items (ensuring all files are renamed to “Name_DescriptiveHeading” – example: “Timon_UofTform”) to attach to an email (or you can choose to hand deliver the package):

  • A letter to your reference outlining everything they will need to know to get the correct forms/letters to the correct university/address. Start the letter with a greeting and short intro, followed by the following headings:
    • My Field of Interest (explain why you are applying to grad school, using sections of your letter of intent here – but keep it very short);
    • Working with You (remind them of when you worked/took a course with them, what you did, and any significant projects and accomplishments),
    • Reference Forms/Letters (use subheadings for each program/university you are applying to and provide details under each one such as school name, program, deadline, type of form to fill out and/or how to write reference letter, how to submit the reference, and any other University specific instruction). Do your research and include the correct information here;
    • Conclude the letter with a thank you and sign it with your contact information.
    • PDF and title this document “LettertoReferee_OrganizationName_RefereeName” (example: LettertoReferee_PHAC_Sarah). Guess what, you can download our sample below :)
  • Download every single university/program’s reference form that needs to be filled out, and rename them with a descriptive title, along with your name (i.e. Timon_UofTform). Some Universities may not have forms that need to be filled and will only require a reference letter written by the referee (you will outline the instructions for these letters in your letter).
  • Stamped envelopes (optional): For those universities where the referee must mail the letter in themselves, include mailing envelopes with the correct stamps (you can often visit the post office and inquire about the cost and purchase the necessary stamp). Providing a stamped envelope will ensure your references get submitted!

Since your initial email already has a confirmation from your referee, your follow up email can be short and straight to the point. It can say something like this:

That’s about it! To summarize, choose the right person to be your reference, make an initial short and informative request, and get organized!

Good luck with your applications, and if PH spot can help you in any way, drop us a message at (or direct message us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter).


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