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:

** 2015 update: a much more exhaustive list of writing tips here.** ** 2020 update: ** please use an automatic grammar and style checker such as Grammarly or Microsoft Word’s grammar checker. They aren’t magical solutions, but can help you a lot!


Introductory paragraph. This should include:

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

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