Professor assisting a student working on a laptop in a classroom.
April 4, 2022
4 mins read

Building relationships for academic reference letters

You've probably realized by now that you can go from one term to the next, and maybe your entire degree, without ever truly interacting with your professors.

Before and after graduation, you might be looking to apply to academic programs or research positions. Most of these opportunities will require at least one reference letter—schools will definitely require at least one if not two academic reference letters.

The most common types of reference letters for these experiences are academic reference letters. Therefore, it's important to cultivate a connection with your professors in classes you're passionate about or put in more effort to ensure you have someone who can write you an academic reference letter.

It can be easy to only say an occasional "hello" to your professor when you walk into class. However, this may not be your best strategy. While it can feel daunting to engage further, remember that your professors are here to help you and interact with you. Don't be scared to raise your hand or check in with them during office hours; you might be surprised to find they really do have your best interests at heart!

Here are some tips to help make the academic reference letter process a bit easier.

1. Build rapport with your professors

It’s not just about befriending your professor; it’s also about building a professional academic network and learning how to leverage this network to your benefit.

An easy way to start building a stronger professional relationship with your professor is by showing more interest in their class. Whether that’s through office hours, emails regarding the class material, or thoughtful questions that go beyond the syllabus and show a deeper level of engagement, you’d be surprised at how quickly they remember you—fewer students put in the extra mile than you would think. 

A common misconception about asking a professor for an academic reference letter is that you need to have had one of your best grades in their class. While it’s important to have shown success in the class, it’s also about showing growth. If you’ve actively participated throughout the semester, your professor will be able to provide a much clearer description of who you are as a student. Graduate schools and jobs in academia will see your transcript; they don’t need your professor to verify your grade. They want to see a demonstration of engagement, hard work, and the character you exhibited. 

There are ways to show engagement outside of class as well. If you work as a Teaching Assistant (TA) or a Research Assistant (RA) for a professor who has taught you, your professor can use this work interaction to supplement their experience with you academically! You don’t even need to have them as your supervisor. These positions show a dedication to the academic field you’re studying, can be a great conversation starter with your professor, and can also be something for them to mention in their letter. 

However, it’s important to keep in mind that these positions are also competitive. While information about TA positions is faculty-based, there are many resources on how to get involved with undergraduate research at UBC.

2. The right way to request a reference letter

If you still have a class with the professor you need an academic reference letter from, make an appointment to ask them in person instead of over email. If you no longer have classes with the professor, include more background information in your email. 

Your request should be:

  • Early: Professors are often stuck under a large pile of work from the classroom and their research. Make your request at least a month before the submission deadline for references. The earlier you submit your request, the longer they have to think about the best letter they could write for you.
  • Polite: Be respectful, re-introduce yourself if it’s been a while, and explain why you’ve asked them to be your reference. Ideally, you should be asking a professor who knows you well and is in a field similar to the one you are applying to. (Bonus points if you’ve also been able to work with them!) Include key details about the program or job you’re applying to—like the program name, requirements, and the deadline for the academic reference letter submission. 
  • Formal: Wording an email can be tricky, no matter how many times you’ve done it. I still spend way too much time crafting and editing emails I send to my professors. Make sure you have a clear subject line (include the class name if you’re still in it) and use their correct title. If you’re unsure of their title, “Dear Professor [last name]” is always a safe choice.
  • Informative: Even if you’ve gotten to know your professor quite well, there’s a good chance they don’t know all of the amazing experiences you’ve pursued outside of class. Include a copy of your resume and a short blurb about why you’re applying to the program or position you’re requesting a reference letter for. The more information you give them, the more they have to write about.

3. Remind and thank your professor 

If it’s been a few weeks since you’ve asked your professor—and they’ve agreed—but they’ve gone AWOL since, it’s more than okay to send a polite reminder. Once the professor lets you know your reference letter has been submitted, be sure to express your gratitude to your professor. 

If you get accepted into the program you applied to or receive a job offer, let your professor know. A professor who wrote a reference letter for me for a Work Learn position was thrilled to find out I got the job, and I’m sure your professor would be too!

Don’t be scared of reaching out to your professors. They are here to help you out, and you might be surprised by the impact your engagement with them can have beyond the classroom.