How to Choose References for Grad School

Sep 27, 2018

By Deborah Vieyra

The references on your resume for graduate school can be the greatest allies you can have in your application process — provided you choose them wisely. Who is that you want to be on the other side of that phone call when someone asks the question of whether or not you are a good candidate for your desired program? Obviously, you want to select people who cast you in a positive light — but apart from ticking off the box of personal cheerleader, what other attributes should you be looking for when you make your selection? How do you decide who is most suitable for this role that is bound to serve a pivotal function in your future?

While everyone’s situation and network is different, here are some key pointers that can step you through how to make a wise choice. We’ll walk you through methods to help you identify potential candidates as well as give you advice on how to finally choose the most appropriate people. When you finally send off your application, we want you to rest easy knowing that your references have your back.

#1 Make a list

No matter what the task ahead, I’m always an ardent supporter of the humble list — and when it comes to choosing graduate school references, this is indeed the best place to start. Start by casting your net widely. Consider people from all areas of your life who can speak to all your skills, talents and most favorable personality traits. Once you have come up with your long list, go through each name and play out the conversation in your mind of how you think they might respond when asked about you. If you have any doubt about whether they would support you, don’t be afraid to scratch them from your list.

 #2 Include former professors

Remember that the purpose of these references are to validate your academic capabilities. The selection committee will want to know from them whether they think you will be able to handle the weight of a graduate school academic load. Ensure that you select people who can speak to your writing, analysis and research skills, and are qualified to give an opinion on your ability to handle the standard of work expected of you at a graduate school level. If you graduated from your undergrad degree many years prior to preparing your grad school application, it is still necessary to find old professors that are willing to serve as referees for you. This may mean you have to get in touch with them sooner rather than later and give them a refresher of who you are and when they taught you. (Think of it from the professor’s perspective — they see many students pass through the ranks.)

 #3 Pick people who know you well

While it is important to include former professors on your list of referees, prioritize choosing people that know you best. You don’t want to put them in a position where they are forced to give a vague account of their time spent with you. Remember that, while credentials are important, they are not as important as a personal relationship with you. If the choice is between choosing a renowned scholar who gave you a few lectures once, or a more junior faculty member who you have had a lot of close contact with, always go for the latter.

Once you have narrowed it down to your selects, make sure to contact your choices and ask them if they would be willing to stand as referees for you. You want to ensure that they’re expecting the call when it comes in.

Good luck in assembling your team!

Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

 © Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.