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Getting Great Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

UL Grad School -- 10/10/2016

Letters of recommendation for graduate school are one of the most important parts of your application. After all, your reference letters help graduate schools determine if you’re ready for the academic challenge of earning your master’s or doctoral degree.

To make sure you have letters that accurately tell your story and speak to your greatest attributes, follow our tips for asking for letters of recommendation for graduate school.

Pick someone who will write a good letter

This may seem obvious, but you need to ask professors, mentors, advisors, or bosses who know you well, who think highly of you, and who can speak to your potential for success in grad school.

When you first approach someone about writing your letters of recommendation for graduate school, ask them outright: “Can you write me a good letter?” If they hesitate to answer with “Yes,” then maybe you should reconsider asking them.

You also want diversity in your recommendations, so choose people who can speak to different aspects of your undergraduate, graduate, and professional careers. For example, think about:

  • Professors who can comment on your academic success and potential—definitely ask professors in your discipline, but you can also ask professors from other fields;
  • Someone who has seen you work and who can speak to your professional abilities and dedication to a particular field of study or passion; and
  • The faculty advisor for an honor society or other organization you’re involved in who can write about your potential for working with others collaboratively and productively.

Who shouldn't I ask?

High school teachers or academic counselors aren’t in the best position to write letters of recommendation for graduate school, mainly because they aren’t as familiar with your experiences and accomplishments since high school. The exception to this rule is if you worked alongside them as a teacher or student teacher; in that case, they are more than prepared to comment on your academic abilities and potential as a graduate student.

Big names don’t necessarily mean big results when it comes to your recommendation letters for graduate school. Typically, senators, governors, or celebrities--especially if you barely know them--can’t provide a personal perspective on why you’re a great grad school candidate. If you worked with this person and they have insight on your professional life, however, then, by all means, get that letter because they can recommend you based on your real workplace interactions.

And don’t ask family members. Even if they offer what they think is an objective opinion on your abilities or preparedness for graduate school, readers of these letters will question their objectivity.

Remind them why you are exceptional

Whoever writes your letters of recommendation should be familiar with your credentials, but don’t trust their memory alone. You need to remind them why you’re so great!

Give your writer a copy of your CV or resume and the statement of purpose you’re planning to submit with your application (even if it’s just a draft). Give them a strong writing sample or another example of your work—it’s better to give them more than they need. Doing so will help them provide specific examples to support why they think you’re ready for graduate studies and broaden their recommendation to include accomplishments they may not have known about before.

Also, feel free to give your writer some direction. If it’s your faculty advisor, ask them to write about your attention to detail while working in their research lab; if it’s your boss, ask them to talk about your experience working in teams and on tight deadlines. Providing some direction will make it easier on your letter writers.

It’s a red flag if the person you ask says, “Why don’t you write it, and I’ll send it!” If they still say that after you’ve provided your writing samples and resume, consider asking someone else. You would undoubtedly write a wonderful recommendation for yourself, but it’s a dishonest practice and won’t include the perspective that an experienced mentor or colleague can provide.

Give them plenty of advanced notice

If you want something done well, give it the time and attention it needs. That applies to your job, to your research, to your writing … and to recommendation letters. When you don’t give someone an adequate amount of time to write letters of recommendation for graduate school, your recommendations will suffer, mostly because no one  appreciates having something dropped in their lap at the last minute.

Extend the courtesy to your letter writers and make sure they have enough time (preferably a few weeks!) to go through your materials, ask any questions they may have, and then devote an appropriate amount of time to write a good letter of recommendation for you.

Think about waiving access to your letters

Every graduate school application is going to ask if you want to waive access to your letters of reference. After all, under the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), you do have a right to review letters of reference after you’ve enrolled in graduate studies at that institution. So, the question is: should you or shouldn’t you? The answer: you really should.

If someone agrees to write a good letter for you and you trust them, then you have nothing to worry about. Waive your right to view the letter. If you’re in doubt about the quality of letter they’ll write for you, then don’t waive access. But then again, if you don’t trust them to write a good letter, maybe you should ask another individual to write on your behalf.

Before you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, decide if you’ll need to see the letter they write. If you will, our advice is to keep looking for a better reference.

More tips for letters of recommendation for graduate school

Looking for more ways to get great letters of recommendation? Check out the Chronicle for Higher Education’s “How to Ask for a Recommendation (and how to supervise the faculty member writing it).

Learn more about the Graduate School application process and our top tips for applying to graduate school.