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The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

How to ask for a reference: Top tips for students

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Whether as part of a university application or a job application, a reference is a key section which those reading the application will take into account when making their decision. After all, this is an impartial, third-party assessment of you, and is the only part of the application which you, the applicant, have no hand in writing.


Requirements for a reference

You should carefully read any requirements for the reference which are stated in the application. Often the university or company will ask for a specific type of referee to vouch for you, usually in relation to what you are applying for. Some requirements may include the following:

  • They must have known you for a substantial period of time (at least 2 years)
  • They must have known you as part of a professional or educational relationship
  • They themselves must be a professional of some kind, such as a doctor or policeman
  • They must have citizenship in the country


Asking someone to be a reference

You should always notify someone that you have put them forward as a reference for an application to anything, this is only manners. That way, they won’t be surprised by a call one day to ask about you, especially if they haven’t heard from you directly in years (would they even remember you?). They would also have time to prepare a worthy answer which captures who you are. Find out more about what you should do in our piece on reference letters.


Who to ask to be reference

Consider asking one of the following for a university or job application reference (note, that some may not be appropriate for certain applications):


Former school teachers, tutors and headmasters

When applying to university, you’ll likely be required to provide an academic reference as this is related to where you are applying to. Ideally this will be someone in the department or area for which you are hoping to study so they can talk about why you would be a good student in this subject at a higher level, as well as your work so far (Note: it might seem a bit odd to have a Theatre teacher provide a reference for you to study Business, but it might still work). It’s always useful to keep in touch with a teacher or tutor from each academic institution you have studied at (try and get a personal email address too in case they move on to another job, or ask to add them on Facebook once you have left that institution if you get on well with them).

Alternatively, there are many other staff members within the school community whom you can ask, such as student counsellors, office staff and even the headmaster/principal/dean/president (this would look really impressive!).


Doctor/Nurse/Medical professional

A family doctor or a nurse is not only a trusted, educated professional, but they may well have known you since you were a child if you have lived in the same area. Again, they are looked on highly in society for their roles and expertise. While they may not wish to mention it if isn’t relevant, they will appreciate any struggles you and your family have dealt with, such as death or illness, and they may choose to talk about how well you have dealt with these. If these have legitimately affected your academic or professional performance, then having someone to vouch for these would be useful.


Additionally, this may be a doctor or nurse who has treated someone close to you, who has gotten to know you over a period of time. This isn’t the most ideal reference though, and may only work for applications for passports, driving licences etc. when you’re really stuck.


Policeman/Local authority

Hopefully you won’t have come into contact with law enforcement individuals as part of their job, but you may well live next door to one. Authority figures are charged with the safety and protection of citizens and a reference from such a person would be looked on highly. While referees you know through personal relationships can sometimes be a grey area, they may still qualify so check. If you have performed work to make the local community a safer place (e.g. through a neighbourhood watch scheme), they can talk about this.


Community group members

Have you been a part of any community or social groups, especially as a volunteer? If so, the leader of said group can act as someone who has known you as a personal acquaintance, but they can also vouch for your professional skills if you have had a hand in event-planning as part of this group. They can talk about what this group does, which will offer a well-rounded picture of you as a person (i.e. what you’re passionate about etc.). If you are the leader of the group, this will look even better; you can either ask someone in the group to be a referee for you, or ask the person who appointed you for that role. Showing that you have given up your free time for these pursuits would be looked on highly.


Former employers

Even if you are young and applying to university, a reference from a former employer from a part-time job will show that you have been instilled with hard work ethic to earn your own money and take on responsibility besides your academic commitments. It’s an admirable quality in a young person, and they can promote simple skills you have, like being time-conscientious, solving problems and going that extra mile.


If you’re slightly older and applying for a job, then filling in the gaps in your employment history is essential. The person considering your application will want to know where you have worked, what you contributed to that organisation and why you concluded your employment. This is just one reason why you should aim not to be terminated for poor performance or misbehaviour, as it can follow you for years afterwards. Sometimes a co-worker can provide a reference, but someone higher in the company hierarchy would be preferred as they would be in a position to hire staff – the higher up, the better so think your line-manager, a director or even the owner/president/CEO.


Religious leaders

Religious leaders are pillars of any community and widely-trusted for their commitment, discretion and faith. If you have been a part of their congregation since childhood, they will have known you and your family intimately for at least 18 years. Plus, as someone who regularly attends a religious ceremony, they will have known you consistently for a long period of time, and can attest to you being a proactive member of a community through giving to charity, helping fellow worshippers, volunteering etc.


Other work acquaintances

If, for whatever reason, you can’t ask someone from within a company you’ve previously worked at, to act as a referee look through contacts you’ve made from other companies or organisations. Have you been in close communication with someone in another company? This may be someone you’ve attended professional events with or agreed deals with. Have you been asked to host a seminar or speak at an event as an expert? These are all instances where you may have done an exemplary job in a professional context, and your potential referee may indeed be in a very impressive position elsewhere now.



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‘Reference Letter: Things to consider’

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