How to Get the Right References

One of the harder aspects of applying to graduate school is asking for help. All schools require references, and applicants often have a hard time going about this part of the process. Whether it is because they don’t want to impose or they can’t decide who would represent them best to the school of their choice, this task is often left for last on the list of things to do when applying.

However, cultivating references shouldn’t be last on the list, it should be first. In fact, building positive personal relationships is an ongoing and ever-present part of a successful career. If this isn’t already part of your regular practice, you should start today.

The process is pretty straightforward. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started.

1. Choose the right people.

If you are going to enter the field of education, then the first place to look for recommendations should be former professors. Ideally, these should be people from within your particular discipline or from your undergraduate program’s education department. Look first to professors with whom you have taken more than just one class, as these individuals will have the most to draw from in creating your reference letter.

You do not need to limit yourself to former teachers though. Other professionals to consider would be your cooperating teacher from your practicum or an employer in an education-related field.

2. Be a professional. Ask nicely.

Etiquette matters. The last thing you want to do is list someone as a reference and then not give them a heads-up. No one wants to get a call on a random Tuesday from an admissions board asking for an ad-hoc recommendation. Take the time to use a two-step approach. First, send your prospective reference an email asking for an appointment to discuss whether or not they’ll be able to recommend you. Then, meet with your former professor and provide some details on your academic and professional career. This leads us to our next point.

3. Provide context.

It is important to note that without providing some specifics to your reference, they will be left to work from memory, and after hundreds and hundreds of students passing through their classroom door, memory might not be the best option. Give them an updated copy of your resume along with a Q & A sheet. Think like an interviewer and provide them with bulleted answers. The easier you make it for them, the more likely they will give you a great recommendation.

It is also a good idea to include them in your virtual social circle. Add them on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.

4. Use different references for different schools.

Everything about applying to graduate school revolves around targeting and personalization. Each school or program will require you to focus your pitch directly toward its needs and beliefs as an organization. References are no different. Certain schools will regard some people as stronger references than others.

If you are applying to a graduate program in English and the specialty you want to study is British literature of the 19th century, then you should look for professors who have been published in that area. If the school you are applying to is a small state college, you may want to approach professors who come from a similar background. It is all about anticipating the needs and attitudes of the admissions board.

So remember, building your professional network is something you should start doing early on. These contacts will not only help you get into the graduate program of your choice, but they could also help you in your career later on.

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Steve P. Brady is a teacher and educational career consultant specializing in resumes for teachers.

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