Writing References

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Academics are often inundated with requests for references by students and former students. You may have had very little experience of reference writing and be unsure how to write a reference that will not damage the student’s employment chances, but will truly reflect their ability. This article explores writing references and offers advice on the best way to navigate this difficult task.

  •  Practicalities: who is this student?

A reference request may come in for a student whose name is now unfamiliar to you. How do you write a convincing commentary on them? Hopefully most students will be polite and notify you beforehand that they have nominated you as a referee. In this case, you will have a chance to discuss with the student his or her career aims.  Otherwise you might have to remind yourself in your department’s records of the student’s performance and grade.

  • Follow instructions:

Reference requests come in a variety of formats so it is no good using a standard reference template. Some require a tick-box approach, asking you to rank the candidate on a number of criteria, and others simply ask for a written statement by you.

Many reference requests are phrased as though you are an employer and not a tutor. Some of the questions may be irrelevant, while others can be adapted to your purposes.

  • Be prompt:

Most reference requests are undertaken at the point of interview, so it is vital that you do not hold up the process by delaying your reply. At busy times you may have several reference requests per week, so it is important that you set aside some time for dealing with them.

  •  Be honest!

While it is tempting to write a glowing reference about every one of your students, this approach will not achieve the desired effect. If you claim that a student has a certain skill or personality type when they do not, your reference may be discredited if they underperform in the job. It is far better to offer an honest assessment. If your student was average, do not try to claim otherwise. For example, if he or she was extremely shy in class, don’t say that they are a proficient oral communicator!

  •  Be fair!

It’s tempting to include small details about the student’s academic performance, especially in cases where they did not live up to your expectations. However, the potential employer is probably not interested in whether the student underperformed in your exam or essay or even whether they missed a few classes because they had been out the night before! Do not allow your involvement with your own subject to cloud the bigger picture. Judge a student on his or her overall performance and academic career, and on their suitability for the job. Be honest, but do not be vindictive. If a student was a really poor performer, they probably have no idea of how you view them, otherwise why would they ask you to be a referee? If you feel that you have no choice but to give a bad account, be brief and objective, or simply refuse to act as a referee at all.

  • Remember that the reference might be read by the student

Candidates can ask to see their references and, in most cases, these will be disclosed by the potential employer. This is another reason to avoid overly harsh or vindictive language and to be sensitive in your description of a candidate’s weaknesses.

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