Letters of Recommendation

Guide for References and Recommendation Letters

During your time at the BU School of Public Health, you may want to apply for competitive internships, scholarships, or a part-time job. After graduation, you may decide to continue your education with another degree, or you might apply for a professional job or fellowship.

For any of these opportunities, it is likely you will need a letter of recommendation or a person willing to act as an academic reference. Letters of recommendation are generally written to be specific to a school or job opportunity, printed on letterhead, and signed. They may be scanned and sent via e-mail or provided in hard copy directly to the organization by mail, depending on the organization’s requirements. For academic references, the student provides the organization with contact information for the professor, and the professor may be contacted by phone (or sometimes via e-mail) to answer questions about the job candidate.

Please note that writing a reference letter or serving as a reference is a voluntary decision that is up to the individual professor. No faculty member or staff member at BU is obliged to give you a reference. If someone hesitates to give you a reference it is probably not in your best interest to press them, for they may not give you a very strong one. Never give the name of a professor as a reference if you have not checked with the professor and gotten her or his permission first.

When submitting a request, you MUST include the following :

__ I waive the right provided by the Family Educational Rights to Privacy Act of 1974 to view this letter of recommendation when completed and understand that it will remain confidential.


__ I do not waive my right to review this document. Rather, I wish to retain the right to view this letter.

If you waive your right to the document, it means faculty are not compelled to give you a copy of the letter; they send it directly to the school or employer for whom it is intended. If you must include the letter with a packet of information, the faculty member should put the letter in an envelope, address the envelope, and sign his or her name over the seal of the envelope. If you do not waive your right to review the document, be aware that the faculty may refuse to write the letter.

It IS important to think strategically about references from the very start of your program. You can cultivate potential references by doing several things:

  1. Take at least 1-2 small courses (i.e. class size less than 40 students) during your program, so that professors have a chance to know you better;
  2. Meet with faculty or your advisor during their office hours, or by special appointment;
  3. Attend concentrator’s meetings, Global Health Forum events, and other SPH activities which provide informal opportunities to meet professors and staff;
  4. Keep in touch with professors whose courses you have taken, or who are interested in topics and fields that interest you. For example, send them articles or links to web sites you find that you think may interest them, or provide updates on your activities during summer or any internships or work experiences you have during your program;
  5. Demonstrate professionalism and initiative. Ask questions in class and seek out advice if you do not understand something. Meet with the instructor to review exams and papers after grading to make sure you see how you can improve. Show that you are open to criticism and know how to incorporate it into your work. In addition to your proficiency in specific topics, these things show commitment, follow-through, and a positive attitude toward continuous learning — important qualities which can be mentioned in a recommendation letter or reference.

Below are general principles which professors follow in deciding whether or not to give a reference, and which you should follow in requesting reference letters. Of course, each person you consider for a reference should be asked about their own principles and guidelines, in case they have more precise instructions.

Principles for References

  1. In order to give a reference, the professor must know you, including your strengths and abilities, your past experiences and future goals, and your character. Generally, professors get to know you from having you in class or in a directed study (such as your culminating experience). On occasion a professor will give a reference to someone he or she did not have in class, if they somehow have gotten to know the student well outside of class.
  2. A professor will generally be able to write a good letter if you receive a B+ grade or better in the course. If you receive a final grade below B+, it often means you are not proficient, and it is harder to write a good letter.
  3. As you write your resume and describe your talents, you may feel awkward and worry about appearing self-promoting. Try not to be modest, though. The inputs you provide should be truthful, but it is time to show off your best side.
  4. For written letters, allow as much lead time as possible, but at a minimum 2 weeks.
  5. Provide instructions for how the letter should be submitted. If it is to be submitted by mail, provide stamped, addressed envelopes for this purpose.
  6. The goal in writing a letter of reference or serving as a professional reference is to write a letter for you or answer questions from a potential employer in a way that reflects you not only as a student, but also as a developing professional. In order to do this, professors need the following information from you:
  • A resume which includes your education, prior professional experiences, and any other information which you feel describes your professional strengths and abilities.
  • A list of any special awards or achievements of which you are especially proud, if they do not already appear on the resume.
  • A description of the job or fellowship to which you are applying. Best to attach a PDF, but it is also ok to provide an electronic link to a web page if it is difficult to attach the PDF. Sometimes professors will work on letters of reference off-line, so it is helpful to be able to print these details, when possible.
  • A statement of your professional goals and objectives, if they are not already included in the resume.
  • A paragraph which describes what YOU think the letter of recommendation should emphasize. Highlight achievements which illustrate your ability to engage fully in the job or opportunity. Where you have specific examples which are not already in your resume, this can be most helpful.
  • Copy of current transcript

Last but not least, people would like to learn the outcome of your applications. Keep professors informed, and thank them for their recommendation. It is a nice thing to do, and you never know when you might need another one!