Ants, Bees, Genomes & Evolution

@ Queen Mary University London

Reference Letters

Current or former students very regularly ask me for a reference to help them apply for a job or a new study program. The process is facilitated & the letter is improved by the following advice.

If you need a reference letter from me, I need you to write a first draft. First, you are best positioned to know what makes you great for what you’re applying for. Second, you’ll end up with a better letter if my time is spent revising something than if I try to create something from scratch.

Your draft should in the form of a letter from me about you (yes, it can feel awkward to write like this). You basically need to say that you are a great and justify why). Some general tips:

  • Please respect the style guidelines given by Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”.
  • Keep things concise.
  • Use a spell-checker and a grammar-checker (on strict mode!).
  • It’s better if the examples you use are relevant to the degree you’re applying to.
  • Don’t highlight weaknesses. E.g. if you have a “C” in something don’t mention it.
  • Whatever you do, don’t lie. Any lies will come back to hurt you 1000-fold (karma).
  • Send it as a document I can edit (not a PDF).

** 2015 update: a much more exhaustive list of writing tips here.**


Introductory paragraph. This should include:

  • Why I am writing
  • Why I know you well (e.g., I am your academic advisor/tutor/supervisor/lecturer since at Queen Mary since xxx when you started your degree in XX).
  • Which degree you are doing and when you are expected to graduate.
  • The last sentence should be a small list of ideas (see below), summarizing why you are great for the opportunity you’re applying to. This also announces the structure of the subsequent pre-conclusion paragraphs (i.e., it should end with a list of 2 or 3 or 4 items as below).

One paragraph per idea (no ping-ponging back and forth!). Some examples of ideas:

  • academic achievements (e.g., coursework or overall grades, predicted final grade (“first?”))
  • evidence that you are dedicated/serious/hardworking/intelligent/creative (e.g., based on your project, punctuality, behavior in tutorials).
  • evidence that you have a good personality (e.g., social intelligence, teamwork, helping others).
  • extra-curricular activities (jobs, volunteering)

Conclusion: a quick summary stating that you’re great for the degree/program/job because of the 3 or 4 ideas.

Overall, the reference should not take more than 1 page - people are unlikely to read anything that is longer.

Thanks to Rob Hammond for telling me about The Elements of Style years ago.

January 27, 2014