Guidelines for Requesting Letters of Reference from David Huron
I am happy to write letters of reference for my students,
colleagues, research collaborators and acquaintances.
I realize that letters of reference can have a marked impact on job prospects,
and scholarship or fellowship successes.
I also realize that it is often difficult to find a suitable person
to write letters.
I do my best to sing the praises of the praise-worthy,
and to generate enthusiasm (where warranted) for you.
I err on the side of emphasizing your strengths:
it is not my role to compare you with other applicants --
that is the role of the selection or award committee.
I get asked to write innumerable letters of reference each year,
so you can help me by following these guidelines:
Please do not ask me to write a letter of reference for
a job or position for which you are not really qualified.
If the job description says "composer" or "historical
musicologist" -- you really ought to have pertinent expertise
in the advertised area.
Reassure me of this by sending me a copy of the complete job description
If I praise someone qualified for area X when the job is for area Y
it makes me look foolish among my professional colleagues and reduces
the effectiveness of all letters I write.
I prefer not to write general or open letters of reference.
Although it increases the number of letters I write,
my preference is to write a new letter for each specific
job or scholarship application.
Send me a clear indication of the address to which the reference should be sent.
I have a strong preference not to write "To whom it may concern"
or "Dear Search Committee".
I think it is more effective to address people by name:
"Dear Dr. Smith and members of the search committe ..."
If the name is not given in the ad, do a little research and
find out the appropriate name.
As you might imagine, I have a bias towards
people who do background research.
My memory is not always reliable.
Remind me of how long we have known each other,
what courses you might have taken from me,
or other details about our relationship.
Tell me about the things I don't know about you.
Send me a resumé or note describing yourself.
Even if I know you well, I'm often surprised by new things
I didn't know, or things I'd forgotten.
Have a strategy for what my letter should highlight and how it
should complement or reinforce what other referees might say.
You should have each referee emphasize a slightly different aspect about you:
research, teaching, musicianship, personality, intelligence, energy, etc.
Give me some guidelines:
identify three or four things that you would like me to comment about.
Don't be shy.
Also tell me what
For example, you've already asked Prof. X to comment about your teaching
abilities, so there is no need for me to comment.
Try to provide all of this information at least two weeks before
the postmark deadline.
(I would really prefer to have three or four weeks notice.)
Send me a note a week before the deadline as a gentle reminder.
(I won't be offended if you pester me, since I know these
things are important.)
Repeat all of the above for
letter or set of letters your request.
I don't keep your CV on file, so send me an updated CV from time to time.