Recommendations and References

Requesting a Recommendation or Reference

Students (and former students) who are applying for study abroad, scholarships, internships, employment, and graduate or professional school are often required to provide references or recommendations from University faculty or advisers.

When a recommendation is requested, the student is asked to provide a letter or form with information about his/her abilities and/or character. When a reference is requested, the student provides the name, title, and contact information of someone who can speak on his/her behalf. Career Services provides information and consultation for students who have questions about recommendations and references.

Student Action

Establish and maintain relationships with your professors, advisers, employers, and volunteer program coordinators so that they know you well enough to serve as your recommender. 

Prior to listing an individual as a recommender, ask if he/she is willing to provide you with a reference/recommendation. Don’t hesitate to ask, “Can you write me a supportive letter?”

Provide your recommender with information that will help them to remember you (especially if it has been a while since they have had you in class or worked with you). Offer your recommender a copy of your resume and transcript.

Offer to meet with your recommender to discuss your application and your plans. Let your recommender know what you are trying to accomplish, what the recommendation is for, and why you believe you are qualified.

Provide your recommender a completed Request for Letter of Recommendation form. Be sure to include instructions for submitting the form or returning it to you.

Give your recommender ample time to complete your recommendation(s).  The more advance notice you give, the more likely it is that your recommender will give your recommendation the time it deserves.  For example, if you need a letter by January 15, consider asking your recommender by December 12 and request your recommendation by January 12.

Waiving the Right to Access Recommendations

According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), enrolled students have the right to view the contents of their university records. Therefore, if a recommendation is part of a student's record, he/she is entitled to see it. Many recommendation forms offer students the option of waiving this right, which means giving up the right to see the recommendation. Deciding whether or not to exercise this option is difficult, because it is impossible to know how an individual receiving a request for a recommendation will react to a student's decision to retain his/her "right to know."

A student may decide not to waive his/her right to access a recommendation, because there are some advantages to having the option of reading it:

  • It might be an ego boost, relieve stress and anxiety, and eliminate curiosity.
  • If there is a factual error, the student could go back to the recommender and ask for a correction.
  • If the letter is unfavorable, then the student would know not to ask for future letters from the recommender.
  • Information in the recommendation might give the student feedback on his/her performance and provide ideas for study, growth, or improvement.
  • Information in the recommendation might help the student prepare for an interview.

Some sources suggest that if a student does not waive his/her right to access a recommendation, then a reader might infer that the recommendation is not candid, the information is incomplete, or the student has something to conceal. The following are sources that express this perspective:

Providing a Recommendation or Reference

Learn about the student/former student's plans by meeting with him/her or by requesting a written statement of intent. Ask the student for his/her transcript or resume, if you feel it will be helpful.

Obtain a written authorization for the release of academic information, detailed above (required to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA]). The Registrar's office provides a Request for Letter of Recommendation form that includes all the necessary information. If a recommendation is to be provided on a form that includes the student's signature and authorizes the release of information, then no additional authorization is required.

The National Association of Colleges & Employers offers Suggested Guidelines for Writing References. A web search for "sample letters of recommendation" provides numerous examples. Guidelines for writing specific kinds of recommendations have been created by the University of California: Academic Graduate School, Business School, Law School, Health Professions Schools, and Medical School.

If the request is for an open or general letter for employment or admission to graduate or professional school, date the letter and address it as "In Reference to the Candidacy of (Individual's Name)." An original copy of the letter may be provided to the student for future use. Providing an original puts the responsibility on the candidate to provide the information as requested.

Providing a Disciplinary Report

The Office of Student Conduct maintains student disciplinary records. If a recommendation requires a statement about a student's disciplinary history, a Penn State faculty or staff member can access a conduct report by sending the student's name and his/her PSU ID number to Judith Westley in the Office of Student Conduct via email jlw26@psu.edu or fax to 814-863-0342. The request must be accompanied by a copy of a signed waiver permitting release of the information. If you have questions, contact Judith Westley, 814-863-1380.

Declining to Provide a Recommendation or Reference

If an adviser or faculty member does not know a student's qualities or characteristics well enough to write a letter on his/her behalf, he/she should decline to serve as a reference. An explanation should be provided to the student. It is better to decline to write a letter of recommendation than to write an ambivalent statement.


Reviewed: June 2014
Last Update: March 2012