How to get a reference

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by Richard Coyne

How to inform us if you need a reference or letter of recommendation

Ensure you get the reference in time by making the process as simple as possible for the referee (ie your teacher who is providing the reference). If you ask for the reference in person then follow up this request with an email. Different lecturers may have different procedures and operate under different time frames.


Who do I ask for a reference?

Choose a lecturer who is familiar with your work and can give an accurate and positive account of your abilities. Sometimes you need a reference from more than one person. Don’t ask more people than you need to. Approach the lecturers individually, and don’t rely on them to communicate with each other about your need for a reference. Please make sure you really are eligible to apply for the job, scholarship, grant or university place before asking for the reference. Let your referee know promptly if you change your mind and don’t need or want a reference after all.


I am applying for a job and the prospective employer wants me to name a referee on the form.

If you are, or have been, enrolled in an MScs/PhD/MPhil that I teach in then you are welcome to supply my name and work details in an application. Email me to let me know you have done this, and attach an electronic copy of your CV, and any other details that might be important. Put the word ‘reference’ in the subject line of your email. The employer may phone me or email me a form or the URL of a form to complete. Check with other lecturers to see if they are happy to be always so named.


I want you to join my LinkedIn network and endorse my skill set.

The value of Linked in for getting a job is still untried. Please remind us that you are or have been a student in one of our courses/programmes when you use LinkedIn to invite us to join your network. LinkedIn seems to be a good way of keeping track of what our graduates are up to.


I want a general reference letter to show to any employer when the opportunity arises.

These letters are usually headed TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, are not confidential (ie you get to read it), are less frank, and therefore carry very little weight. If you really think you need this kind of reference then request this in an email, supplying as much CV material and information about your marks and achievements as you can. State when you need the reference by. Put the word ‘reference’ in the subject line of your email.


When should I ask for the reference?

It is better to ask for a reference after we have had a chance to see your work and award marks. So don’t ask too early in the academic year. Ask us for the reference at least two weeks before any deadline.


I am applying to gain entry to one or more degree programmes at a university and need to submit one or more written references.

Most universities now have an online application system. The referee is usually required to use this as well. Make sure you tell your referee whether they need to submit the reference by a particular date, or whether they need to wait for an email from the university.

• If there are forms then fill in as much information as you can yourself.

• If the reference needs to be placed in an envelope and bundled with an application you are submitting via the post then supply us with the envelope, already labelled with your name and the name of the recipient institution/s. The academic or office staff can usually supply you with an envelope.

• Email your referee a record of your marks to date, a CV (if you have one), link to your professional website, and any other relevant information with the word ‘reference’ in the subject line.

• Sometimes the referee will ask you to supply a list of points that you think will help your case. Don’t list personal hardships, unless the university specifically asks for this.

• Supply this information to each of the lecturers you are approaching for a reference.

• Come and see us about the reference if you need to.

• Remind us in person and by email as the deadline/s approach.

I am applying for a scholarship, studentship, grant or other award and need a reference.

The same procedures apply, but sometimes the referee has to supply supplementary information, especially if it is for a scholarship awarded by the University of Edinburgh. Allow plenty of time, and complete as much of the information as you can on the forms.


How do I collect my reference?

These days this is usually all handled by email and online forms, but if a paper reference is required then we usually supply this on University letter paper with any forms attached, in a sealed envelope, signed across the seal, and with a strip of transparent tape over the signature. If we can’t catch you in person we will leave sealed references for you to collect from the office staff.