If you are facing graduate school applications, it’s time to get serious about requesting references for your letters of recommendation.  Usually grades and test scores factor are most influential in a graduate school application; however, many applicants don’t realize that letters of recommendation can be the deciding factor in the admission process.  As a continuation of the previous blog, 5 Tips for Recommendation Letters, an effective letter should provide those making admissions decisions with an assessment of your potential as a graduate student.  Therefore, it is important that you ask those who know you academically to write your recommendation letters.  Professors are the ones who most commonly write letters of recommendation for graduate school applicants; however, professionals who supervised your work in academia or research may also be appropriate choices.


Although you cannot control a letter’s content, there are things you can do to make the process of getting positive letters of recommendation as successful as possible.  Who you request a letter of recommendation from, how you ask, and when you ask will influence the quality and type of recommendation you receive.

Who to Ask

It might take a while for you to think of people who can recommend you.  This is okay.  Don’t worry too much about getting the most prestigious name you can find to recommend you for the program.  Of course, that might help bring attention to your application, but if the people who own those names don’t know you academically, professionally, or personally, then their recommendation letters will seem bland and generic.  The people who know you well academically, professionally, or personally will provide a unique and customized recommendation letter for you.  These letters are the ones you want because it will allow their readers to get an idea of who you are as a potential graduate student instead of only understanding basic knowledge about you and your achievements.

Anything other than a positive letter has the potential to harm your application.  Ideally, you want a letter from someone you’ve worked with in a classroom setting, research, volunteer work, or any other one-on-one situation.  So, avoid anyone who you think might give you a negative reference and remember that an indifferent reference can be just as bad as a negative one.  The following people make the best recommendation letter writers:

·         Someone who knows you well

·         Someone who’s class you have taken/currently in

·         Someone with the title of “Professor”

·         A professor at the school granting your undergraduate degree

·         Someone who has earned the degree which you are seeking in your graduate work

·         Someone with an advanced degree who has supervised you in a job or internship aligned with the graduate program you are pursuing

Even if you did well in a class, if you didn’t interact with the professor individually, he or she is not the right person to ask.  Your best letters will come from those who know you well, so make an effort to get to know your professors.  A few ways you can do this are to choose courses with small class sizes, speak up in class, regularly attend office hours, take more than one class from a professor, and do research for a professor.

The best approach is to ask potential recommenders if they are willing to write you a strong, positive letter.  If the person you ask for a reference from declines, thank him or her for their consideration.  Ask those who can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level; but remember that letters from family, friends, or political figures are a huge NO.

How to Ask

Asking for recommendation letters can be intimidating, but don’t let that keep you from asking.  Requesting people to recommend you for graduate school is easier than you may think; you just need to ask in the right way.  Depending on your relationship with your professor, you might decide to either e-mail or make an appointment to see him/her.  If you have casual relationships with them, then e-mailing people to ask for recommendation letters would be a good choice; however, no matter how informal your relationship is, there should be a professional tone to your e-mail.  On the other hand, if you don’t feel quite comfortable enough e-mailing to ask for recommendation letters, then making appointments might be the better choice for you.  This option would be best for past professors you haven’t seen in a while. 

There are also few things to avoid when asking for recommendation letters; such as asking a professor for a recommendation letter as you pass each other in the hallway, instead, ask to speak to them later in their office, or visit them during their office hours.  Ask to meet with your potential recommender(s) to discuss your desire to apply to graduate school.  During the meeting, you will have the opportunity to discuss your academic interests, career aspirations, and prospective schools and programs.  This gives you the opportunity to request the letter of recommendation in person. 

The best strategy to use to get a good letter of recommendation, particularly if the recommender hasn’t known you long, is to provide him or her with information about you.  This way, you will get a letter that includes tangible details about you.  Provide your recommenders with the following information (in addition to the deadlines and formats for turning in the letters to the schools and programs of interest) to help them gain a better understanding of your background and interests:

·                     A copy of your transcript and list of relevant courses taken

·                     A copy of your CV and/or resume

·                     Copies of admissions essays

·                     Titles and abstracts of relevant research papers you have written

·                     Honors and awards received

·                     Related academic and research activities (e.g., internship programs, presentations, symposia, etc.)

When to Ask

Whether you e-mail your professors or talk to current employers in person, make sure you give all your potential references the information they need to recommend you for your graduate school or program.  The timing of your request will likely depend on when you plan to turn in your application.  At least two to four weeks is preferred, although you can also begin conversations about recommendation letters as early as when you’re first considering applying.  Whatever you decide, do not procrastinate asking for recommendation letters.

Give your recommenders several weeks’ notice.  When you ask for a recommendation letter, you’re asking your professor or employer to spend their own time doing you a favor; don’t waste their time by asking them to write a letter in the next day.  You do not want your letter writers to feel rushed, you want to give them enough time to write a good letter.

If you are thinking about asking professors, keep in mind that professors can be very busy, and many times deadlines for other things come up and they need to delay the recommendation letters they need to write.  Popular professors will also get requests from other students; if those requests were made before yours or they all come in at once, your letter may be put on the back burner.

If you plan to take time off before going to graduate school, don’t wait until you want to apply to a program to ask for letters.  By this time, your professor could be on sabbatical, or may not have you fresh in their mind anymore.  So, ask for a letter before you graduate and keep the letter in a safe place.  Then, when you are ready to apply, you can contact that professor again and ask them to bring your letter up to date.


Getting good recommendation letters can be tricky, but if you do what it takes earn praise from your potential letter writers, then recommendation letters shouldn’t be an issue.  Remember that anyone who writes a letter for you is doing you a favor, do not put him or her in an awkward situation of having to do something with very little time.  Do not feel awkward about checking in with your recommenders to make sure they turn in the letter on time for the application, but do not pester them.  Also, make time to let your recommenders know the outcome of your graduate school application; it is considerate and they will want to know.


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