Letters of recommendation are a crucial part of any higher education application. They can help an admissions officer see beyond test scores and connect the dots about who you are and why you will be a strong fit for their program. But how can you ensure that the letter submitted on your behalf will impress admissions and help you stand out from the crowd?
Read on to explore some of the best tips for requesting a graduate school recommendation letter.
How to Ask for a Grad School Recommendation Letter
Step 1: Consider Your Options
Requesting a letter of recommendation may seem daunting, considering how big of an impact it could have on your future. Before you navigate the way in which you will ask for letters, it’s important to consider a few very significant factors.
Know the Rules
For most graduate programs, you’ll need two or three letters of recommendation. Be sure to carefully check the application guidelines for each graduate program you’re applying to. In addition, certain programs will specify if your letters of recommendation should be from an academic or professional source, which might include your manager or colleagues. Take the time to understand exactly what each program is looking for before reaching out to recommenders.
Choose the Right People
After exploring the guidelines for letters of recommendation for your particular program, it’s important to review who your options are for recommenders. You may consider requesting a letter from a professor, faculty member, researcher, employer, mentor, or peer you have a positive relationship with.
What matters most is that you engage someone who:
- You’ve worked with directly for a meaningful amount of time
- Can speak to your specific strengths and describe how these strengths will serve you well in the graduate program
“You don’t just want a letter that says you’re a hard worker, but one that demonstrates [the] ways that you are a hard worker,” says Mallory Leiendecker, associate director of enrollment at Northeastern University. “Admissions officers want to know how you would benefit their program, so you want letters that will help bring that to life.”
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Step 2: Frame Your Request
How you present your request for a letter is just as important as who you ask. Think through your plan for approaching your recommenders carefully, and always be sure to “show your genuine appreciation to recommenders for helping you,” Leiendecker says.
Be Thoughtful in Your Approach
Writing a letter of recommendation is a big favor, so be sure that you approach asking from a respectful, formal, and grateful place.
One way to bridge this conversation is by asking for a brief meeting with them in which you can walk them through how much you value your experiences working with them, how their input will be significant to your application, and what you hope to achieve from the graduate program.
What’s more, be sure to clearly state in this conversation why you chose them specifically to write a letter for you. Perhaps they helped you learn essential skills or they inspired you to pursue a particular area of study. No matter the reason, they are more likely to feel connected to your request if they know there’s been a lot of thought and time behind your decision.
It’s important that you make an in-person meeting work for this conversation if at all possible, as well. If you can’t, aim for a video or phone call instead. Although email is efficient, it often leaves room for interpretation in messages, and with an ask as important as this, it is vital that your contact knows exactly how important this is to you, and how thankful you are for their consideration.
Provide an Easy “Out” for Recommenders
Receiving lukewarm letters of recommendation can actually do more harm than good. To avoid this problem, consider framing your request to potential recommenders in a way that gives them an opportunity to politely decline if they don’t feel their insight will be impactful. Ask if they would feel “comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation that will highlight your particular strengths.” That way, if they aren’t someone who is likely to write a glowing recommendation, they have an opportunity to gracefully bow out.
If they do deny your request at this stage, consider it a gift; you will still have an opportunity to find someone else who will write an impactful letter on your behalf, and you can avoid including a generic recommendation in your application.
Be Considerate of Their Time
Professors and other professionals receive countless requests for letters of recommendation, so it’s best to give your contact plenty of lead time to write yours. Generally, it’s a good idea to ask for recommendations at least one month or more in advance of the application due date. Leiendecker explains that “the worst thing you can do is wait until a few days before the deadline on something that’s this important.”
If possible, you may also want to build in some buffer time to your request, and ask them to provide the letter a week or two before the actual deadline. That way, even if your recommender faces an unexpected obstacle or delay, you can still ensure your materials are submitted on time.
Step 3: Make the Request
To help ensure that your request gets completed on time and to your standards, be sure to provide your recommenders with everything they may need in order to write a letter on your behalf.
Set the Stage
Set the stage for recommenders by explaining why you selected this particular graduate program and why you feel you’re a good fit. Gently guide recommenders to ensure each letter of recommendation:
- Explains how the recommender knows you and your work
- Outlines the ways in which they anticipate you will be successful in the program
- Provides specific examples that illustrate your top attributes
Be sure to review the degree program website and talk with an admissions officer to get a clear sense of the program requirements and what attributes or academic skills are most valued within the program, as well. Even providing your recommender with a bulleted list of highlights based off of your conversation can be incredibly impactful as they work to tie what they know about you and your work ethic to the specifics of this program.
“If you provide recommenders a format for the letter and points to think about, that can help get you a better letter. Be very clear about what you need from them and what the admissions committee is looking for. A personal letter that connects the program with your work and your professional goals will have the highest value.”
Make it Easy for Recommenders
Whether you make your initial request in person or in writing, be sure to follow up and provide any relevant information the recommender may need to craft their letter. Depending on the situation, this might include:
- The university name
- The college name
- The program name
- Your application
- Your statement of purpose
- Your college transcripts
- Any additionally required essays or statements
- Your research work highlights
- A list of any awards and honors you’ve received
- Your resumé
- The letter submission deadline
- Instructions for submitting the letter
- Your contact information (so recommenders can reach out to you with any clarifying questions)
Providing these materials upfront will remind the reviewer of your most important skills and should help add color and context to each letter.
Step 4: Follow Up
It’s understandable to feel a bit shy about following up with recommenders, but if done politely and appropriately, this can be an important step in ensuring letters are written and submitted on time—and that they are the best reflection of you.
Review the Letter in Advance
If possible, consider politely asking recommenders if they can send you a copy of the letter before they submit it. This way you’ll know what was written and potentially have more control over the process. If the letter is meandering or doesn’t hit the salient points you’re looking for, there could be an opportunity to tactfully ask if the recommender would mind making a few minor changes before sending in your letter.
Just remember to remain polite, receptive, and grateful for their time and energy throughout the process, and limit requests for edits or re-writes to one or two maximum.
Remember: Some programs ask if applicants want to waive their right to review recommendation letters submitted on their behalf. Be sure to consider whether or not you’ve chosen to waive this right before requesting to review the letter with your recommender.
Provide Respectful Reminders
If you haven’t heard from recommenders as you get closer to the application deadline, it’s a good idea to make a polite inquiry several weeks before your application due date. There’s no need to pester them, but it can be helpful to send one gentle reminder confirming that they plan to write a letter and asking if they have any questions or points you can provide some insight on as they work.
Hearing from you may be the prompt they need to get to work, or they may actually follow up and ask for further input. The opportunity to answer any follow-up questions may even negate the need to ask for a copy of the letter ahead of time and allow you the opportunity to provide some input or feedback during the writing stage.
Step 5: Share Your Success
Send a note of gratitude as soon as recommenders write you a letter. “A thank you note goes a long way,” said Leiendecker. “Also, if you get into the program, write to recommenders letting them know and thanking them for their role in your success.”
Want more tips and advice for applying to grad school? Explore our related articles.