Recommendation Letters: Who to Ask, How to Ask, and When

Recommendation Letters: Who to Ask, How to Ask, and When

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:

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