What is an Academic Reference?

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As you start applying for jobs or forms of higher education, you might start to get requests for an academic reference. References tend to come towards the end of an application, and it can be frustrating being asked for one after a particularly long process. Fortunately, because academic references are fairly simple documents, getting one is also a fairly straight forward task.

Put simply, an academic reference is a document written by an academic that details information about a student’s performance. This information includes things such as the learner’s attendance and work quality. You may be expected to provide an academic reference for jobs and higher education, specifically a masters or PhD.

By reading this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of what an academic reference entails.

What is an academic referee?

An academic referee is usually a teacher or someone who has overseen your learning in an educational environment. They will have marked your work and will be familiar with what kind of learner you are.

If you applied to university, you may already be familiar with the concept of references. In fact, the references you get to apply for university are academic references, they just may not have been called that. This Think Student article details exactly what a university reference is, in case you’re unfamiliar with the concept.

Your referee should be someone you trust to give an accurate portrayal of you as a learner. They do not need to know every single detail about your life. However, your referee should be able to confidently talk about your educational performance and things that may have impacted it.

If you have a learning difficulty or experienced something traumatic or went through any other events that influenced your studies, your referee should be aware of it. You may have already told the party requesting the reference about this but mentioning it again will further legitimise your statements. In addition, your referee will be able to go into the details of how exactly this altered your learning experience.

Can a friend be an academic reference?

On some occasions, a friend can actually be used as a reference to vouch for your character. This is usually the case for recommendation letters which are slightly less formal than academic references. However, using a friend as an academic reference is not recommended.

An academic reference needs to be written by some kind of teacher, lecturer or mentor who can comment on your progress in an educational setting. It is important that the reference comes from the perspective of someone who knows you as a learner.

The main reason why a friend would not make a suitable academic reference is that they’re unlikely to have the same perspective as a teacher. Your friend might be in the same class as you, but they probably won’t know how your essays have improved over the years, for example, like a teacher would.

You might say that the person you choose to write your academic reference is both a mentor and a friend. In that situation, it is key that you know this person can be trusted to not exaggerate certain achievements or sugar coat things for your sake. If you feel they wouldn’t be capable of being honest and fair, it is not recommended that you choose them as a reference.

What counts as an academic reference?

The individual writing your academic reference needs to be available to answer any questions once the reference has been submitted. The party requesting this reference might want to follow up on information or verify that they know you.

If it turns out that you fabricated contact details, the reference will not count. This might also be the case if your referee does not respond in time to the person who requested it. It is key that you trust your referee to be available for some time after they’ve written it.

In the majority of cases, it will lead to the delay of your application for whatever you needed the reference for. Try to prepare for situations where your start date may be delayed.

Your referee should know what a reference entails and what details to include but you should ask for an opportunity to look it over before you submit it. Although they may know what information to include in their reference, they may not know your specific details.

For example, it may be helpful for your referee to mention what your career goals are or what industry you see yourself working in in the future. This way, your referee can bring up more relevant details in the document that are specific to your aspirations.  

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