You don’t just need profs to agree to write you a reference letter – you need good strong references. Since these are confidential, you won’t be able to see them, so here are a few things you can do to improve the quality of your references.
Participate in class discussions, or take advantage of office hours to discuss course material that particularly interests you. This will give your references something substantial to discuss in the letter.
Consider taking a directed reading course or a course with a significant portion of the grade focused on papers or research that reflect the interests you want to pursue when you graduate. This will equip your references with strong examples of the quality of your work and your commitment and interest in the area.
Tell the professor teaching the courses most relevant to your plans to pursue further education in a related field. This will let them know that you are serious about your studies. They are also able to advise about what schools and scholars are well regarded in your field and can help you refine your research interests.
This means professors who are listed as ‘assistant professor’, ‘associate professor’ or ‘professor’ on the departmental website. The latter two are preferable to the first, but all three types are acceptable. Avoid contract faculty as their status in the university is not strong enough to provide a competitive reference. Exceptions to this would be in fields where contract faculty are also practicing professionals in the field e.g. performing or visual arts, nursing, business, social work, etc.
Helping a potential referee understand what role they played in your intellectual development, and your decision to pursue further education will help them understand the logic of having them specifically write on your behalf.
This is especially important in cases where the professor teaches large enrollment courses, or when you may not have been particularly talkative in class. Facial recognition will help them remember you more immediately than your name at the end of an email.
Once you have their agreement to write on your behalf, follow-up with an email thanking them outlining key points you think would be useful, deadlines, schools and instructions for each one. This gives them a single point of reference to turn to when composing their letters. It is also a good idea to include papers or projects you may have written for them, and a list of courses and the terms in which you took them to help them look up your grades more easily. Put “Your name - information for reference letters” in the subject line to make it easier to find.
Post grad applications are due at the busiest time of the academic year for both students and professors, so don’t deluge them with multiple emails about your application. Once you have sent your follow-up email described above, avoid contacting again before the submission date unless it is an emergency. Remember to be polite and not overly informal in all your correspondence.
This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. The purpose of the reference letter is for a seasoned professor to provide a frank and honest assessment of the applicant’s ability to succeed in an advanced program of study. It is unlikely you will be able to replicate either the tone or the rhetoric of such a statement convincingly. If this happens to you, thank the professor for their offer, but explain that you are uncomfortable doing this and will seek another referee.
Don’t forget to send a heartfelt thank you to all your references, and let them know if you are accepted. It is astounding how rarely students remember to thank their referees or to let them know what happened with their application. This is especially problematic if you need to reapply the following year. A referee who was not thanked, or didn’t hear back from you is unlikely to be enthusiastic about writing on your behalf in the future.