I am looking to go back to grad school, but I graduated from my undergrad over 3 years ago. I didn’t go straight into grad school, because I was burnt out on school and knew I wouldn’t be able to give it my best effort. But now that I am thinking about going back, I don’t know what to do about recommendation letters. I never really developed a special relationship with any of my professors because I never had them more than one semester, and it has been at least 3 years since I was in their classes. Who should I ask for a recommendation letter, and how?

--Searching for Letters

Dear Searching for Letters,

Letters of recommendation from academics or former professors are common, but in many cases, this is neither a requirement nor an expectation. Recommendation letters can really come from anyone who has known you well enough to be able to speak to your potential as a graduate student. For those who are not going directly into graduate school from undergrad, letters of recommendations often come from employers, supervisors, or even people you have volunteered with in the past.

Think about the work you have been doing the past three years as your warm up to graduate school. Assuming you have been working in a field related to what you are planning on pursing in graduate school, your supervisors are able to see your potential to your field in a way that professors are not able to see.

When asking for letters of recommendation, I often suggest being transparent in your approach. Tell the person why you want to pursue graduate study and why you are asking them to write you a letter (here might be a good place for a little flattery). Also, it is best to ask for letters of recommendation in person rather than via email; this helps to add a personal touch.

You should provide a copy of your CV for any person you ask to write you a letter of recommendation. You will also want to be respectful of their time. Anyone you ask to write you a letter of recommendation is often a very busy person. As a general rule of thumb, you should try to give letter writers at least a month to write the letter. Additionally, be sure that you have all the information needed to complete the recommendation letter. This may include specific forms to complete and instructions about where to send the letter. In many cases, admissions departments will request that letters be sent directly to them. If that is the case, you will want to provide letter writers with an addressed and stamped envelope. Lastly, you might want to consider sending thank you letters to everyone who has taken the time to write a letter on your behalf.

--René Paulson, PhD

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