References v. Letters of Recommendation

I often get asked about references (who to ask and how to set them up) and also about letters of recommendation (who to ask and what’s the difference anyway?). This is a copy of a document my colleague put together that I’ve changed slightly to fit the teaching profession. It’s kinda long, but full of good information. Hope this helps!

References & Recommendations

1. Figure out who to ask.
Choose 3-4 people know you very well and will give you a positive recommendation. Recommenders should also be well-spoken and know your skills, qualities, and values in a work setting. Examples:

  • Former or current supervisors from teaching internship, pre-service placements, research projects, or other jobs.
  • Professors you’ve had for two or more classes, faculty leader of a study abroad program or cohort program, coordinators, and field instructors

2. Great is better than good.
Always ask (before giving an employer their name) if they would be willing to serve as a professional reference. It’s OK to ask if they will provide you with a strong, positive recommendation. If they can’t, ask someone else.

3. Give them helpful details.
As a courtesy, send them:

  • A copy of the job posting (or link to the graduate program)
  • A copy of your resume

4. Have your list ready.
Employers will ask for your references when THEY want them, so have them ready but don’t send them early. Don’t try to fit them on your 1 page resume and there is no need to write “References available upon request” on the bottom of your resume. List them on a separate stand-alone sheet. Bring a copy to your interviews in case they ask; make the paper and formatting match your resume and cover letter for a polished, professional look.

What to Include on your Reference List: Your contact information, and information about each reference: full name, their title, employer, working phone and email address, and their relationship to you.

Ima Spartan | 517.355.1855 |


Marcus Washington, mentor teacher                                              517.420.4569
Third Grade Teacher, Marble Elementary School, East Lansing Public Schools                                                                                                                               

Leann Vollman, field instructor                                                       517.355.5551
Teacher Prepration Program, Michigan State University  

Kelley Cochran, PhD, former research project supervisor         517.353.4569
Director Speech Cognition Lab, Michigan State University

Mark Chen, supervisor                                                                       248.695.5555                     Assistant Director, Tutor Time, Royal Oak, MI                     

Letters of Recommendation:
Letters of recommendation are often used for admittance to graduate school programs. Graduate schools want to know two things: your fit for advanced studies and your fit for the profession. Choose recommenders strategically who can speak to each of those things in their letter. For example, 1-2 professors who can speak to your fit for graduate/advanced studies (reading, writing, critical questions, research, publishing). And choose 1-2 people who can speak to your fit for the profession (work supervisors, ideally those in the field, student organization advisors that you’ve had extensive contact with and who know your dedication).

Timelines: 1 month is not too early to ask for a letter of recommendation. They want to recommend you, but successful people have very busy plates and you need to allow them time to pull something together for you amidst all that they have to do. Be gracious and grateful with your recommenders.

Additional Helpful details: Be sure to tell your recommender…

  • Date you need your letter by (if applicable). Make it 7-10 days early for wiggle room.
  • Format for letter (paper, digital)
  • Name of the person the letter should address (e.g. Dr. Warren Spalding)
  • How/where to submit (mailing address or web portal)

Special for teaching profession: Letters of recommendation are not just for graduate school. It’s not uncommon for employers in K-12 education to ask for letters of recommendation. Choose your references (or others) with the strongest writing skills to write these letters for you. In addition, new teachers like to use letters from parents, colleagues, and other professionals to showcase their talent in a professional portfolio. This is great! Just be sure to ask if they mind if you use their letter in that way.

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